Repealing Clean Water Act Could Devastate Our Waters
During 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Secretary Scott Pruitt to begin the process of replacing the Clean Water Act. Stating the move stemmed from a desire to protect the interests of industry, the president once again demonstrates he has little understanding of the reality of environmental devastation and what unfettered pollution will do to the human population, including to business leaders and their brain children. Even though Pruitt recently stepped down as head of the EPA, his replacement Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, promises to be every bit as hostile to the planet.
The waterways of the world are interconnected through series of smaller streams, seasonal wetlands and underground aquifers where humans draw their drinking water. In 2015, former President Obama clarified a rule stating prior to any development destroying a natural water source, the developer must receive a special permit from the EPA. The revocation of this requirement will not only affect smaller streams — it will affect the entirety of the precious resource American citizens rely upon for their very survival.
A Brief History of the Clean Water Act
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 stands as the first major legislation passed to address the problem of water pollution in the U.S. In the late 60’s, a series of popular sports fishing locations suffered the deaths of thousands of fish, damaging the sporting industry significantly. Despite these deaths, pollution rates in the nation’s waterways continued to soar. The matter came to a head in 1969 when an oil slick on the Cuyahoga river near Cleveland, OH, burst into flames due to the high levels of pollution. The blaze caused significant damage to two railroad bridges, but more importantly served as a wake-up call to legislators to enact more meaningful change, and the Clean Water Act was born in spirit, then enacted in deed in 1972.As originally drafted, the law applied only to “navigable waters.” This meant smaller streams, arroyos running only part of the year and individual, smaller wetland areas fell outside the protections of the Clean Water Act. Since 60 percent of the U.S. water supply consists of such waters, much was left unprotected.
In 2006, a case reached the Supreme Court in hopes of clarifying the provisions of the act. However, the Court returned the case back to lower courts for a determination. In January of 2001, the Court determined in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers the Clean Water Act overstepped its boundaries when it came to protecting ponds for migratory birds, and ruled that the act could not be used to protect isolated wetlands.
Finally in 2015, the Obama Administration took action to clarify the rule and strengthen the provisions of the Clean Water Act. In what was lauded as an environmental and humanistic measure, President Obama expanded the act to apply to all streams, even those which run only intermittently, as well as ponds.
The Environmental Consequences of Overturning the Clean Water Act
Should the Clean Water Act be overturned, the results could devastate farmers, animals and human consumers alike. Approximately 117 million Americans rely upon small streams for their water supply. Should these streams lose protection under the act, there’s no telling what contaminants will flood into human homes.
In order for environmental protection laws to work as intended, they must be science-based and free of loopholes such as the proposed exception for smaller waterways the Trump administration hopes to create. Enforcement agencies must act to minimize exceptions, not create new ones. The inter-connectivity of the nations’ waters means pollution in one area soon spreads downstream to others. Even locations far from the source of contaminants may nevertheless lose their supply of clean water.
The move to strike Obama’s provisions from the Clean Water Act hardly mark the first time the Trump administration has exhibited utter disregard for the safety of citizens’ drinking water. Five years after the crisis began, the water in Flint, MI, remains as polluted as ever, and children continue to suffer poisoning from lead and other contaminants. To date, the administration has failed to address the issue even as industry giant Nestlé continues to pump limited supplies of clean water from the area to bottle and sell.
Additionally, should the provisions be repealed, native wildlife will experience decimation. 80 percent of America’s native birds and 50 percent of migratory birds rely upon wetlands for survival. If these areas lose protection, hundreds of species of birds will perish, as will the larger predators who prey upon them.
The Impact on Industry
For a man who prides himself on his keen business acumen, Donald Trump displays incredible ignorance toward the way the wheels of certain industries turn. The tourism industry, for example, relies upon the preservation of national treasures, including waterways, to drive vacationers to their destinations. No one wants to holiday near a lake reeking of decaying fish.
The agricultural industry, likewise, will take a hit, and some consumers are likely to starve. Farmers rely upon clean water to raise healthy crops; polluted waters will render some U.S. grown food supplies unsafe for consumption. Coupled with Trump’s proposed tariffs against Mexico, the largest importer of produce to the U.S., and prices at the grocers’ are sure to rise. The elite will adapt; the impoverished will perish.
Less able-bodied workers means fewer low wage employees for industries of all types. Even Trump’s own beloved real estate empire could crumble because investors want little to do with lavish hotels located along streams and lakes overrun with red algae and putrefying bacteria.
Why the U.S. Must Act to Strengthen Protections
Should the Trump administration succeed in repealing provisions of the Clean Water Act, courts will need to wrangle with new issues balancing the needs of industry against those of environmental stewardship. Given the way the administration has stacked the federal judiciary with justices who lean toward protecting business interests above everything else, preventing environmental catastrophe requires action by the legislature and individual states.But in order to pass such legislation at the federal level, Democrats need to take back the Senate as well as the House. Otherwise, all proposed new rules likely will never reach the desk of Trump or his successor.
States can take action to draft stricter rules. These will meet with challenges as well, but offer one way for local governments to protect their waterways somewhat, though contaminants still could enter from outside jurisdictions.
Clean Water Is a Basic Human Right
All living things need water to survive, and human beings are no exceptions. If we truly hope to live up to our forefather’s ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens, then we need to protect our access to this vital resource.
About the author
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.