The Trump Administration Wants to Set Water Safety Back 50 Years
By Jeff Turrentine
By fourth or fifth grade, most American schoolchildren have learned about the water cycle. They come to appreciate water's elegant efficiency as it moves from phase to phase: journeying from sea to sky to land and back out to sea again, supporting all life on earth along its transmutative path. I still smile at the memory of my own daughter excitedly sharing with me what she'd discovered about the water cycle at school, the way her voice rose as she informed me that "all the water is connected!" The idea that the substance making up the world's creeks, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans was the very same stuff — literally, the same molecules — as what she found in her bath, or in a snowman, or coming out of a water fountain ... well, it just blew her little mind.
My daughter, now 10, is both smart and intellectually curious, and I'm as proud of her as I can be. But it unnerves me to think that she understands the fundamentals of hydrology better than President Trump or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. What else but ignorance could be behind the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, the Trump EPA's most recent act of environmental policy nullification? There's just no way to interpret this egregious attack on water safety that doesn't point to a fundamental misunderstanding of how water operates within an ecosystem. Unless, of course, Trump and Wheeler do understand the science and simply don't care, having decided that appeasing corporate polluters is more important to them than protecting the nation's waterways, including the increasingly vulnerable sources of our drinking water.
Wait. Hold on a second.
OMG: Could that actually be the case?
In 2015, President Obama's EPA issued the Clean Water Rule (sometimes known as the Waters of the United States Rule, or WOTUS for short), a long-overdue updating of the 1972 Clean Water Act that reflected new science showing how important streams and wetlands are to the larger system of so-called navigable waterways, a group that includes rivers and lakes. The decision to clarify the rule so that the act would protect smaller, non-navigable waterways acknowledged the intimate connections among waterways of all kinds. And while a 10-year-old kid might not be able to parse the legal and technical language behind the Clean Water Rule, at the conceptual level it's simple enough for a child to understand: Water is constantly flowing or seeping, meaning that if you introduce pollution at one point along the way, the pollution will flow or seep as well.
Land developers, manufacturers and Big Agriculture — among other interested parties for whom polluting streams and wetlands has been a normal part of doing business — hate the Clean Water Rule, and as soon as it was announced lent their support to numerous lawsuits designed to kill it. When Donald Trump became president, he promised to overturn it. And now he and Wheeler are trying to replace it with the speciously titled Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
If you're not a corporate polluter or a politician in cahoots with one, there's nothing to like about this rule. Even the EPA's own scientists hate it. In a draft letter sent to Wheeler late last year, the head of the agency's Science Advisory Board (SAB) pronounced it to be "in conflict with established science ... and the objectives of the Clean Water Act," and furthermore that it "decreases protection for our Nation's waters" and has the potential to "introduc[e] substantial new risks to human and environmental health." Michael Honeycutt, the SAB's chair and the letter's author, seemed particularly bothered by the EPA's inattention to the established science supporting "the connectivity of waters," specifically "the connectivity of ground water to wetlands and adjacent major bodies of water."
To put it another way, the EPA is basically being accused — by its own team of scientific advisors, no less — of watershed denial. By stripping federal protections from nearly half of America's wetlands and millions of miles of streams, the Trump administration is openly broadcasting its lack of faith in the science that underpins both the Clean Water Rule and the Clean Water Act that came before it. In place of that science, Trump and Wheeler are proposing a new foundation for our country's water safety policy: the desire of home builders, golf course developers, oil and gas companies, mining concerns and other industries to dispose of their waste by using it to fill in wetlands or by dumping it into nearby streams, creeks and gullies.
Even though it's right there in front of us, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that at the root of the word ignorance is the word ignore. The kind of ignorance on display by Trump and Wheeler here isn't synonymous with unawareness. It's not describing a passive state. This is the kind of ignorance that requires you to avert your eyes and cover your ears, to make calculations and decisions. You have to decide, just for example, that the public interest is better served by allowing corporate farmers to dump millions of gallons of pesticide and fertilizer into local streams (which lead into rivers, which lead into bays and gulfs and oceans) than it is by asking them to come up with other, safer places to dump their waste — or better yet, to make less waste in the first place. You have to decide that it's better to let land developers pave over wetlands, destroying both wildlife habitat and natural water-filtration systems, than it is to ask them to let the wetlands be.
And you have to decide to forget whatever lessons you may have learned back in the fourth grade — lessons about how water always finds other water, about how connected all water is to itself and to us.
But just as water will flow, truth will out. We'll all be discovering that truth soon enough.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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