Is there anything more pure than a pristine alpine river? As that river flows, and shapes a landscape it provides a playground and sanctuary for whitewater kayakers, cold water immersion enthusiasts, fly fisherman, and the like. Down the line, that same river may serve as a habitat, breeding grounds for fish, and supply drinking water.
American waterways are a hub for recreation, resources, and wildlife. They’re also ecologically sensitive resources with a complicated relationship to the industries and individuals that make a home along their shores. This is why President Trump’s recent repeal of a portion of the Clean Water Act (CWA) is, well, kind of a big deal.
In the early 1970s, amid growing concerns for the quality of our water, the Clean Water Act (CWA) was enacted as an integral policy piece to regulate pollutant discharge. As a method of addressing water pollution, the CWA requires permitting and regulation for any industrial or municipal polluter. Obtaining said permits and meeting those standards is a lengthy and bureaucratic process with serious repercussions, but that’s the point. The Act holds a lot of weight across industries and the nation, while actively regulating industries to prevent direct pollution and keep the water we drink, play in, and admire, relatively clean.
During Obama’s time in the White House, he broadened how we define water, significantly expanding that protection. Rather than just focusing on the antiquated definition of navigable waterways (bodies of water deep and wide enough for a canoe), the “Waters of the United States” rule recognized the importance of wetlands, small streams, and even dry washes. In layman’s terms, the CWA had previously focused on protecting the largest bodies of water, while the Obama Rule expanded those protections to the bodies of water the flow into them as well. It outlined new guidelines and restrictions that required E.P.A. permits for the use of pesticides and fertilizers, for example, which inevitably run into those bodies of water. Obama’s goal was simple: maintain the integrity of drinking water through the greater protection of around 60 percent of American water while modernizing policy language.
On September 12th, the EPA and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers repealed President Obama’s update to the CWA, reverting the act back to many of its restrictions and standards of the 1970s. Rather than requiring stringent regulation of pollutant sources on outlier water, President Trump’s shift in policy narrows what we consider water. His repeal reverts President Obama’s broader scope back to “navigable water.” Streams, small subsidiaries, flood plains, and other minimal water sources do not technically fall under this category. In short, President Trump’s repeal changed the language to minimize those federally protected areas while allowing industry and individuals more leniency in polluting waterways. This is welcome news for some rural landowners, real estate developers, and farmers who can now develop without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
For everyone else, this backtrack in policy should be a concern. Without active pollution regulation for all bodies of water, we can expect heightened pollution levels and a general decline in ecosystem health. Additionally, repealing the “Waters of the United States” rule creates a grey area where issues will likely be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Multiple sources believe that this vague language and a general misunderstanding of the repeal will lead to a slew of lawsuits. While the new policy isn’t yet set in stone, assume that President Obama’s expanded protections for sources of waters will be placed on the sidelines. Large bodies of waters, like lakes, rivers, and significant subsidiaries, will still very much be protected, but those smaller and valuable bodies of water will be disregarded.