Trump Admin’s Clean Water Rollback Will Hit Some States Hard
By Tara Lohan
The Santa Fe River starts high in the forests of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains and flows 46 miles to the Rio Grande. Along the way it plays important roles for wildlife, irrigation, recreation and other cultural uses, and provides 40 percent of the water supply for the city of Santa Fe's 85,000 residents.
But some stretches of the river don't flow year-round, and that means parts of this vitally important water system could lose federal protections under changes to clean-water rules just passed by the Trump administration.
The administration's new Navigable Waters Protection Rule replaces the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (or WOTUS) rule that defined which waterways were protected under the Clean Water Act. The Obama administration broadened and clarified which waters were safe, but the new rule takes a much narrower view. Under the changes many waterways lose federal protection. That includes ephemeral streams and rivers that depend on seasonal precipitation — like parts of the Santa Fe — as well as waters that cross state boundaries and wetlands that aren't adjacent to major water bodies.
This loss of protections means pesticides, mining waste, and other pollutants can be dumped into these streams and unconnected wetlands can be filled for development without running afoul of federal authorities.
"This puts drinking water for millions of Americans at risk of contamination from unregulated pollution," Blan Holman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told The New York Times. "This is not just undoing the Obama rule. This is stripping away protections that were put in place in the '70s and '80s that Americans have relied on for their health."
The rule flies in the face of basic science about river ecology and groundwater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's own scientists. Even if streams don't flow all the time or wetlands don't touch major bodies of water, dumping pollutants into them can still harm the watershed — and by extension drinking water and wildlife.
The Trump administration promised these changes would offer more control to states, but many state officials say they find the new rules problematic, confusing and potentially dangerous.
"One of our biggest concerns with the final rule is that it's not rooted in sound science," said Rebecca Roose, water protection division director of the New Mexico Environment Department. "And there was really no attempt by the agency to reconcile the final rule with the scientific basis for the 2015 WOTUS rule and advice from the scientific community."
While these changes will be felt in every state, they won't be felt equally.
Some states may not be equipped to deal with what's coming, said Jen Pelz, an attorney and biologist at the nonprofit group WildEarth Guardians.
To understand these changes, it helps to look to the East Coast, where the 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed touches six states and the District of Columbia. Decades of concerted effort and millions of dollars have helped clean up and protect its network of creeks, streams, rivers and wetlands that flow into the tidal bay.
Experts fear the new rule could undo some of that effort.
Chesapeake Bay wetlands in Maryland. Timothy Pohlhaus / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The most damage could come from Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, which lack strong state laws to protect waters. In Delaware alone, 200,000 acres of wetlands could now be susceptible to pollution or drained and filled for development, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported.
Wetlands like those in the Chesapeake serve as a critical safeguard for filtering water pollution, according to the EPA. Coastal wetlands can also help prevent floods and storm surges, with are both likely to increase with climate change and sea-level rise.
And this weakening of protections in some states in the region could harm the entire multistate watershed because of the interconnected nature of waterways.
"Wetlands that are not connected on the surface with rivers are vital parts of a river network and significantly influence water quality, the rate of flow and the biological communities in larger rivers," Ellen Wohl, a professor of geosciences at Colorado State University and an expert in river systems, told The Revelator last year, when the rule change was proposed. Even when there's no surface connectivity, wetlands "can still be connected below the ground with other portions of the drainage basin," she explained.
That's an issue not just in the Chesapeake. Holman expressed concern about how it will affect states across the South. The rollback of protections is likely to affect drinking-water quality — and the states with the least resources to handle more pollution will be hit hardest.
"Who loses when that protection is removed? The people living downstream," Holman wrote recently in The Guardian. "They will have dirtier drinking water and more flooding. This is especially true in the South, where state environmental agency staff are routinely underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed by pro-polluting politics and industries." The Clean Water Act previously leveled the playing field for these communities across the country, but now that's gone.
Those states with stronger state-level environmental laws, however, will be less vulnerable.
California, for example, has enacted state laws that protect all its wetlands and ephemeral streams. That means the clean water rollbacks would be less damaging — but it doesn't mean that California is entirely unaffected.
Federal funding that helps support water-quality protections in the state would be lost and — just like in the Chesapeake watershed — there's concern about waterways that cross into California from other states like Oregon, Arizona and even Colorado.
"Ephemeral streams across the Colorado River Basin states and Oregon contribute significant volumes of water to rivers flowing adjacent to and into California," said George Kostyrko, director of the Office of Communications for California's State Water Resources Control Board. "Millions of Californians and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the Imperial and Coachella valleys depend on Colorado River water that will no longer have minimal federal protections."
Will the feds step in if one state's waters start to cause pollution in another? California officials aren't so sure.
Today’s announcement is an unlawful assault on the Clean Water Act and we’re prepared to take action. California… https://t.co/Oi8LyH52sB— Xavier Becerra (@Xavier Becerra)1579813291.0
"Generally, the Clean Water Act will still require federal agencies to follow state water laws," Kostyrko said. "We have grave concerns about how the federal administration could push boundaries here, though."
Costly Burden, Bigger Picture
The rule was sold to states as a way to boost their authority and give them more control over how waters within their boundaries are designated.
"All states have their own protections for waters within their borders and many already regulate more broadly than the federal government," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement announcing the rule.
Unfortunately, that's not true for states like New Mexico.
"The premise that all states are capable of addressing water quality issues in their state is false," officials from the New Mexico Environment Department wrote in their public comments on the rule last year. "Not all states can implement a robust and successful water quality program without significant federal assistance."
Roose said they originally estimated that around 96% of New Mexico's waterways would lose federal protections. Since the final rule has been released, they're re-evaluating it and believe it may be slightly less, but the vast majority of the state's waterways would still fall outside the scope of federal jurisdiction under the new rule.
For a state with the second-worst economy in the United States, that poses some big problems.
New Mexico is already more reliant than most states on the federal government's help implementing Clean Water Act regulations. Under the Act certain programs, like the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, which issues permits to regulate pollution discharges from large sources like mining operations, municipal sewage-treatment plants and big construction operations, can be relegated to states. But New Mexico is one of just three states where the federal government administers and enforces the program.
With the federal government now relinquishing regulatory authority to huge amounts of New Mexico's waterways, the state will need to find a way to fill those gaping holes to protect water quality — a process that won't be easy, cheap or fast.
"If we already had a built-in program for permitting discharges to our surface waters, then we might be able to pick up that regulatory permitting slack with existing state and rules, like some other states are planning to do," said Roose.
She says the state will do all it can to leverage its groundwater program and other regulations as it begins to work with the legislature to find funding and build capacity for a new regulatory program. It's a process that would take a minimum of three to four years at best, she estimates.
Barring legal challenges that result in an injunction, the rule would be implemented in just a few months.
That means that for years some drinking-water sources will be more at risk, and so will wildlife. In New Mexico this includes imperiled species such as the Gila trout, Chiricahua leopard frog, Jemez salamander, Rio Grande silvery minnow and yellow-billed cuckoo.
A yellow-billed cuckoo in the Gila National Forest, N.M. Bettina Arrigoni / CC BY 2.0
"We think of it not just in terms of water-quality protection for healthy rivers and streams for healthy aquatic ecosystems," said Roose. "We think about it as also tied to our economic viability for recreation and also a cultural resource for many individuals and communities and native communities throughout the state. So this cuts to the heart of who we are as New Mexicans."
She says the state is exploring all legal options to block the rule from taking effect, including possible multistate litigation. California has already declared that it will fight the rule change, and numerous other states and environmental groups are expected to work to block the measure, too.
The rule's fate may rest in the hands of the court, perhaps even the Supreme Court, but could also hinge on who wins the next presidential election. And there's a lot that could be litigated.
"The administration certainly didn't conduct an analysis of what waterways would be impacted," said Pelz. It will come down to how various definitions in the regulation are interpreted, which could lead to other legal challenges. "For example, 'typical year' is a term used to help determine what waterways are covered. What does that mean?" she asked. "Is it the 30-year average streamflow? Does it take into account a warming climate?"
She anticipates the rule will face a lot of scrutiny in the courts, but it's also only one part of a bigger picture.
Pelz said it's important to think about this rule in the context of the past three years and the litany of environmental rollbacks set in motion by the Trump administration. Bedrock environmental laws across the board have come under assault from the administration, ranging from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
"I think that the cumulative impact of all of these proposals is something that people aren't really talking about," she says. "We're talking about the environmental safety net that has been in place since I was born. These fundamental environmental protections that we've all come to know as just a baseline are going to no longer exist."
Editor's Note: The Center for Biological Diversity, which publishes The Revelator, filed an intent sue the Trump administration on February 18 over the rule change. This story was in development before the announcement, and all content from The Revelator is editorially independent from the Center's work.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.
By Betsy Mason
For decades, climate scientist David Keith of Harvard University has been trying to get people to take his research seriously. He's a pioneer in the field of geoengineering, which aims to combat climate change through a range of technological fixes. Over the years, ideas have included sprinkling iron in the ocean to stimulate plankton to suck up more carbon from the atmosphere or capturing carbon straight out of the air.
Solar geoengineering would involve injecting reflective aerosols from high-altitude planes into the layer of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere, which stretches between 10 to 50 kilometers (6 to 31 miles) above Earth's surface. The idea is that the aerosol particles would reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
The planned Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment will send a balloon carrying scientific instruments in a gondola into the stratosphere. The instruments will release a small amount of material — likely ice or mineral dust — to form a kilometer-long plume of aerosol particles (left). Modified airboat propellers will allow the gondola to maneuver above the plume (middle) and lower instruments into the plume to take repeated measurements of how the particles spread through the stratosphere (right). ADAPTED FROM J.A. DYKEMA ET AL / PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A 2014
David Keith envisions using multiple approaches to combat climate change. The red line shows how the impacts of climate change would worsen with a business-as-usual scenario of unabated burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressively cutting emissions bends that curve, and removing carbon from the atmosphere offers further cuts, but there are still consequences from the already high levels of carbon dioxide. In this scenario, solar geoengineering would lessen the impact from existing atmospheric carbon dioxide, effectively carving the top off the curve.<p>Some people think we should use it only as a get-out-of-jail card in an emergency. Some people think we should use it to quickly try to get back to a preindustrial climate. I'm arguing we use solar geoengineering to cut the top off the curve by gradually starting it and gradually ending it.</p><p><strong>Do you feel optimistic about the chances that solar geoengineering will happen and can make a difference in the climate crisis?</strong></p><p>I'm not all that optimistic right now because we seem to be so much further away from an international environment that's going to allow sensible policy. And that's not just in the US. It's a whole bunch of European countries with more populist regimes. It's Brazil. It's the more authoritarian India and China. It's a more nationalistic world, right? It's a little hard to see a global, coordinated effort in the near term. But I hope those things will change.</p>
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