The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers proceeds with rolling back Clean Water Act protections for headwater streams and wetlands—harming trout, waterfowl, and outdoor recreation businesses
Today, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers took the next step to replace an Obama-era rule that benefited headwater streams and wetlands across the country. The new rule would redefine which waters are eligible for Clean Water Act protections and leave important habitat for fish and waterfowl vulnerable to pollution and destruction.
The rule proposed today would remove Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams, which only flow in response to rainfall, and likely excludes intermittent streams, which only flow during wet seasons. These waters are important for fish and wildlife, especially in the West.
Under the new rule, adjacent wetlands will only receive protection if they are physically connected to other jurisdictional waters. This disregards the EPA’s own research that shows wetlands and ephemeral and intermittent streams, even those that lack surface connection, provide important biological and chemical functions that affect downstream waters.
“No matter which party holds the power in Washington, the needs of America’s hunters and anglers have not changed since we supported the 2015 Clean Water Rule—all streams and wetlands are crucial to supporting healthy fish and waterfowl populations that power our sports, and an entire swath of these important habitats does not deserve to be overlooked or written off on a technicality,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and women will remain engaged in the public process of creating a new rule for how our smaller streams and wetlands are regulated, because our quintessentially American traditions in the outdoors depend on it.”
“The agencies’ refusal to consider the science is detrimental to the integrity and security of our fish and wildlife resources,” says Doug Austen, executive director of the American Fisheries Society. “Headwater streams are key to the sustainability of fish stocks in both upstream and downstream waters. Now, species that are already in trouble will be harder to recover, and more species will be at risk of becoming imperiled. Loss of protections for these waters will have grave ecological consequences for fish and fisheries—and ultimately the communities across the U.S. will lose the economic, social, and cultural benefits that are derived from headwater streams.”
“This proposal is fundamentally flawed for one simple reason: It focuses on the wrong criteria—continuous flow of water—rather than protecting water quality in our rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs,” says Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “This misguided approach is completely unsupported by science and common sense, and it not only jeopardizes public health, it will undermine the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy.”
The Obama administration finalized its Clean Water Rule in 2015 and clarified that the Clean Water Act protects smaller streams and wetlands. The Trump administration’s rule embraces the minority opinion written by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on what constitutes the “Waters of the U.S.”
Scalia’s definition was not adopted by the Supreme Court and is not supported by hunters and anglers. In fact, 80 percent of sportsmen and women in a 2018 poll said Clean Water Act protections should apply to headwater streams and wetlands. Additionally, 92 percent believe that we should strengthen or maintain current clean water standards, not relax them.
“The administration’s new proposal turns its back on the importance of small headwater streams to healthy waterways and sportfishing recreation,” says Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “Small headwater streams are like the roots of our trees, the capillaries of our arteries. Sportsmen and women know that all the benefits of our larger streams, rivers, and bays downstream are dependent on the health of our small streams.”
Today’s proposed rulemaking would roll back protections on diverse wetland habitats, including prairie potholes in the Great Plains region. Also known as America’s duck factory, these wetlands support more than 50 percent of our country’s migratory waterfowl. Since the Supreme Court created confusion about the application of the Clean Water Act in the 2000s, America has experienced accelerated wetlands loss—only 40 to 50 percent of the original prairie potholes remain.
“From wetlands in the prairie potholes region to the riparian areas that are critical to 80 percent of all wildlife—including big game—our hunting and fishing traditions can’t exist without clean water,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Hunters and anglers will not stand for shortsighted policies that weaken protections and threaten the integrity of fish and wildlife habitats currently safeguarded by bedrock conservation laws like the Clean Water Act.”
The new rulemaking could also threaten America’s outdoor recreation businesses and communities that rely on tourism spending related to hunting and fishing.
“No one who loves the outdoors wants to fish a lake covered in toxic algae, duck hunt near a bulldozed wetland, or pitch a tent next to sewage ditch,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Yet more water pollution is exactly what will happen if the administration dismantles clean water protections. It’s bad for wildlife, and it’s bad for the nearly 8 million jobs powered by the outdoor recreation economy.”
Today’s proposal will be published in the Federal Register here. At that time, the public will have 60 days to comment.