Guest Op-Ed: Saving the Waters of the US

By Jack Clarke

There are almost one hundred law suits pending against the Trump Administration as it does its best to recklessly dismantle America’s common-sense public health and environmental protections.

In addition to taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by providing an enforcement holiday for industrial polluters, among the most blatant rollbacks is one taking place under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

A proposed rule coming out of the White House would gut defenses against pollution for about half the country’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams that are primarily fed by rainfall. It is an unprecedented and dramatic setback of decades of environmental security for our nation’s waters.

And it won’t be going unchallenged, as Mass Audubon, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the National Resources Defense Council, along with five watershed groups from around the country, have filed a legal action in the federal district court in Boston to stop the repeal.

Although America’s overall water quality has improved significantly since passage of the Clean Water Act, a recent federal assessment showed that nearly half of the nation’s rivers and streams, a third of our wetlands, and a fifth of our coastal waters and Great Lakes waters are still in “poor biological condition.”

Rather than reverse an almost five-decade legacy of clean water protection, we need to step up our efforts in the fight against pollution along with the negative impacts of climate change.

The Clean Water Act is one of the nation’s most important environmental laws. It safeguards permanent and temporary rivers, lakes, channels, creeks and streams that millions of Americans rely on for drinking water and for activities such as swimming, fishing, and hunting.

The law also protects millions of acres of associated wetlands that keep those water bodies healthy by filtering out pollutants and reducing flood damage –these are public health and safety benefits that should not be lessened in this time of climate change-induced weather disruption.

In New England, the rule changes would also affect isolated wetlands and thousands of vernal pools – seasonal bodies of water in forests that provide habitat to many wildlife species including resident and migratory birds.

Of the Bay State’s 143 breeding bird species recently evaluated by Mass Audubon, 43 percent are “highly vulnerable” to the effects of climate change alone. Reducing the protections for critical waters used by avian life to breed, nest and raise their young will only add to their levels of stress and vulnerability.

Nationally, we’ve already lost 3 billion birds in the past half-century due to pollution and loss of wetlands habitat, and we know that two-thirds of North American bird species are now at further risk of extinction from climate change. This rule change piles on the threats.

The decisions to reform environmental laws should be based on sound science –science that informs and drives public policy, not the other way around. In this case, and as it has in the past, the White House has dismissed all scientific evidence.

Just this past winter, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory panel of 41 scientists responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency’s regulations, including the proposed clean water standards, concluded that the new rule ignores science by “failing to acknowledge watershed systems.” They found “no scientific justification” for excluding certain bodies of water from protection under the new regulations, noting that pollutants from smaller and seasonal bodies of water can have a significant impact on the health of larger water systems.

 It is no surprise, as The New York Times pointed out several weeks ago, that “…a disregard for scientific advice has been a defining characteristic of Trump’s administration.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is re-writing the law at the behest of industry groups including the American Farm Bureau, American Gas Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association, US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau, and the Heritage Foundation.

So, in response, some of the country’s leading conservation advocates are fighting the rollback in the courts – at the behest of the nations’ waters and public health.

Jack Clarke is the director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon.

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