Don’t Love That Dirty Water

by Karen Heymann

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) finalized a new ‘Clean Water Rule’ clarifying protections for navigable waterways of the US and providing protection for the tributaries that impact downstream waters, as well as wetlands and waters adjacent to rivers and lakes.

Last month, the Trump Administration issued an Executive Order initiating the process of rolling back this updated rule, commonly referred to as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The rule, finalized by the previous administration, has been disputed as government overreach by opponents such as current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who in 2015 led a multi-state lawsuit against the rule in his role as Oklahoma’s Attorney General.

At the core of the current dispute is a lack of agreement over how the EPA and Corps define which waters are protected under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Despite the scientific evidence supporting the adoption of more stringent regulations, concerns over the rights over private property owners as well as states to alter or impact smaller bodies of water is driving opposition to the new rule.

The Clean Water Rule protects our streams and wetlands that feed our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Photo credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service

The Administration’s latest attempt to unravel the CWA is a classic ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario, pitting private property rights against the management of a common resource. In seeking to undermine the Clean Water Act, policy makers are failing in their duty to ensure that individual interests and actions, such as dumping pollutants in stream or filling in a wetland, do not outweigh the interests of protecting our common water resources.

To arrive at the final rule, EPA and the Corps examined more than 1,200 scientific peer-reviewed publications and summarized the latest scientific understanding of how streams and wetlands affect the physical, chemical and biological integrity of downstream waters. The science was clear: in order to protect our nation’s navigable rivers and streams smaller bodies of water such as wetlands and tributaries must be protected as well.

WOTUS was a step in the right direction, but even more efforts will be needed to ensure the integrity of our nation’s water resources. In Massachusetts, we have state and local water resource protection laws that offer more stringent protections for our lakes, rivers and streams compared with federal laws, and our economy is among the strongest in the nation. While there is no one size fits all solution for the management of our water resources, federal lawmakers should look beyond the political rhetoric over WOTUS and more strongly support the science that justifies the need for stronger policies to protect the nation’s waterways.

Mass Audubon serves on the Board of Mass Rivers Alliance – see what our partners there are doing to protect the waters of Massachusetts.

Karen Heymann is Mass Audubon’s Legislative Director