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.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Michelle D. Holmes
Most Americans know about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans primarily through their colorful representations: the original food pyramid, which a few years ago morphed into MyPlate. The guidelines represent the government mothering us to choose the healthiest vegetables, grains, sources of protein, and desserts, and to eat them in the healthiest portions.
As innocuous as the food pyramid and MyPlate seem, they are actually a matter of life and death.
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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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