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The Trump Administration Plans to Strip Protections From Seasonal Wetlands and Rivers. Who Will Be Affected?

The proposal would endanger watersheds that sustain wildlife and supply drinking water for millions of Americans.
Water is pumped into an irrigation canal in Biggs, California.

Water is pumped into an irrigation canal in Biggs, California. The new proposal would include "certain ditches" in a federal list of protected waters.

In a reversal of Obama-era policy, the Trump administration announced its plan Tuesday to strip streams and wetlands of their protections under the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency claims to be changing the Clean Water Rule's definition of "Waters of the United States" for consistency. In reality, the proposal would endanger millions of acres of waterways—an impact that officials have disputed, despite their agency's own analysis showing otherwise, as revealed in documents obtained by E&E News.

The EPA says protected waters will include "traditional navigable waters" and their tributaries, along with "certain ditches, certain lakes and ponds." Only wetlands that border these waters will be federally regulated. This leaves out streams that flow after rainfall, groundwater, ditches, land once used for agriculture, and waste-treatment systems, according to the EPA's announcement.

"Our proposal would replace the Obama EPA's 2015 definition [of WOTUS] with one that respects the limits of the Clean Water Act," EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. "Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not."

This "simpler" definition would also mean the following:

  • A 2017 report from the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers shows that 18 percent of the country's streams are seasonal. These waters are particularly sensitive to climate change and pollution, studies have found—and their contamination will have a direct effect on human health: According to Obama-era EPA analysis, approximately 117 million people (one-third of the total U.S. population) relies on drinking water from systems powered by streams that flow when snow melts or rain falls.
  • The rule change would also exclude 51 percent of the nation's wetlands, which either intersect streams for part of the year or not at all, the EPA has found. These ecosystems control flooding, sustain wildlife, and even mitigate some of the biggest effects of climate change by storing carbon and absorbing floodwaters.
  • Already experiencing drought, the American West will be hit especially hard under the new policy. The rule change could impact waterways across more than 3,000 watersheds in the region, including many that supply water for fisheries and drinking. In California, the Los Angeles Times reports that 66 percent of the state's fresh water streams would lose federal protection.
  • The lack of federal oversight could put more than 75 endangered species at risk of extinction, the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance predicts. Especially in the arid West, "streams that flow for only part of the year provide crucial habitat, food and water for plants and wildlife," an EPA webpage, which is no longer maintained under the current administration, says.

The rule could be finalized as soon as next year, though environmental groups are already pushing back. "The Trump administration's radical proposal would destroy millions of acres of wetlands, pushing imperiled species like steelhead trout closer to extinction," Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Tuesday.