(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — When members from Trump’s team announced rollbacks of the Clean Water Act (CWA) on Jan. 23, 2020, EnviroNews immediately reached out to, and interviewed, two of the nation’s heaviest hitters in the fight to protect America’s vital water resources: Erin Brockovich and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (RFKJR). While most Americans were glued to their TVs, watching that very same president, Donald J. Trump, undergo an impeachment trial in the Senate, his administration quietly removed protections for streams, arroyos, wetlands, and groundwater, in a move RFKJR said was “by far the most consequential attack on the Clean Water Act in history.”
It’s a move that WildEarth Guardians says “disproportionately” affects the western United States, and many are calling it Trump’s “Dirty Water Act.” Rivers and creeks that only run after rainfall or snow melt are no longer protected; dry states, like New Mexico, get most of their water from these “ephemeral” sources. RFKJR agreed and said the consequences could be dire for arid states.
“[Polluters] just have to go up to a point in the stream that is declared ephemeral, and they can then dump anything they want into it. In Nevada, for example, 85 percent of the streams are ephemeral,” RFKJR told EnviroNews in an exclusive telephone interview.
Brockovich agreed that the rollbacks could cause problems for drinking water. She said that it’s time for laypeople to get educated and take the lead in protecting their water resources.
“When downstream waters become impaired because of these cuttings of regulations, locals must act — even if it requires litigation. Lake Okeechobee and Lake Erie come to mind as prime examples of how shit flows downhill,” Brockovich told EnviroNews.
As an example, these new changes could land the iconic Rio Grande in trouble. It receives much of its water from the type of intermittent and ephemeral sources that are no longer covered under the CWA’s umbrella. The river is the source of drinking water for millions of people in the Southwest.
“Trump’s new rule is an absolute disaster for the state’s water resources,” said New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham (D), in a statement. “No other natural resource in New Mexico has greater significance to our people than our water: environmentally, culturally, economically, recreationally. Stripping federal protections from our rivers and streams is an affront to all who call New Mexico home.”
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said the EPA never consulted his department even after he submitted extensive comments on the draft, and after the EPA said it would engage with New Mexico on the matter. Kenney called out the EPA and the entire Trump Administration, accusing it of a reckless, baseless strategy.
“This federal administration’s self-proclaimed deregulatory agenda ignores sound science, states’ rights and most troubling, the EPA’s own mission to protect public health and the environment,” Kenney said in a statement.
Jen Pelz, Rio Grande Waterkeeper and Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians, said as long as a wetland is not directly connected to a river covered by the CWA, a developer would now be able to dredge and fill that wetland without needing a permit.
“River basins are like trees. You can’t put poison at the base of a tree and not expect it to destroy the trunk and leaves,” Pelz told EnviroNews in an email. “It defies common sense to leave unprotected the arteries of life to the desert Southwest.”
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claims states are still allowed to protect those waterways the federal government has just allowed corporations, construction companies and fossil fuel developers to dump their toxins and trash into.
“Our rule protects the environment and our waterways while respecting the rights of states and property owners,” Wheeler said in a news release. The rollback “strikes the proper balance between Washington, D.C. and the states.”
RFKJR was quick to call that argument out while speaking to EnviroNews. “That’s what the polluters will say is that the states have rules to protect local waterways, but the problem with that is, in order to qualify for Clean Water Act funding, which funds most these state conservation departments, the states had to pass rules that were equivalent to the Clean Water Act,” RFKJR continued to EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry, in the phone interview. “But there is an enormous incentive for states to revoke those rules, which is what you’re going to see. And that was why we had to pass the Clean Water Act in the first place, because otherwise you get a race to the bottom among adjoining states that are trying to lower their environmental standards to recruit industry,” he asserted.
Trump’s Administration said the rollback allows farmers to plow their fields without fear of accidentally contaminating a water source and incurring penalties because of the runoff. Trump’s move was more a play for Big Ag and his diehard base, Brockovich told EnviroNews.
“The focus of these rollbacks is predominately on the corporate farms,” said Brockovich. “Big Ag paid for this batch of administration executives, and now they are cashing in.”
However, Big Ag may not be the biggest winner after all. The Government’s own figures show that real estate developers and nonfarm industries are more likely to file for permits to impinge on protected waterways according to the AP. Meanwhile, Wheeler and the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers announced the changes at the National Association of Home Builders International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.
“The Administration eliminated clean water protections to protect polluters instead of protecting people,” said Blan Holman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement. “This rule is the culmination of an insider campaign to gut bipartisan protections that have safeguarded the nation’s water for decades, and will endanger the health and environment of families and communities across the entire country.”
Brett Hartl, Government Affairs Director with the Center for Biological Diversity, a prominent conservation advocacy group, said in a press release that the decision will lead to the extinctions of endangered animals, including steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Chiricahua leopard frogs (Lithobates chiricahuensis), and yellow-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus).
“People and wildlife need clean water to thrive. Destroying half of our nation’s streams and wetlands will be one of Trump’s ugliest legacies,” Hartl said.
The new rule isn’t on the books, yet. It still needs to be published to the Federal Register and will come into effect 60 days after that. Several states, including New Mexico, as well as environmental groups, are threatening to sue, but worry developers will act more quickly than the courts can respond under the new rules. “[They’ll] get the bulldozers lined up, and day 61 fill in streams and wetlands,” said Geoff Gisler, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, to the Seattle Times.
CWA was passed in a bipartisan effort in 1972 during the Richard Nixon’s presidency. Congress overrode Nixon’s veto 52 to 12. The Act replaced the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948.
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