News Room

Izaak Walton League Decries Weakening of Protections for Clean Water and Wildlife Habitat

01/23/2020

Gaithersburg, MD – The Trump Administration announced today that it has finalized new policy that fundamentally weakens Clean Water Act protections for drinking water, streams, and wetlands nationwide. Small streams and wetlands across America are now directly in the crosshairs of polluters.

“Stripping away Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands runs counter to science, the law, and common sense,” says Jared Mott, Conservation Director for the Izaak Walton League. “With its focus on one arbitrary criteria – continuous flow of water – rather than protecting water quality, the administration is jeopardizing public health and the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy.”

The Clean Water Act was passed to improve and protect water quality by limiting pollution discharges into the nation’s streams, rivers, and other waterbodies and to stem the dramatic loss of wetlands by regulating when they could be drained or filled. Beginning in the 1970s, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations relied on science-based standards to identify the specific types of waterbodies protected by the law. The overwhelming body of science proves that water quality in rivers and lakes, for example, is directly affected by waters that directly and indirectly flow into them. Because the purpose of the Clean Water Act is to improve and restore water quality nationwide, EPA regulations protected streams that flow periodically because pollution dumped into these streams adversely affects the health of larger waters.

The policy finalized by the administration today stands the Clean Water Act on its head. It repeals the science-based definition of “waters of the United States” and replaces it with an arbitrary definition based on how frequently a stream has water flowing in it during the year. Under this policy, a stream that flows for a few months due to melting snow would be included in the definition, but a stream that flows after it rains or following a snowstorm would be excluded. Both flow periodically and both can carry pollution to other waters and affect water quality downstream, which demonstrates how blatantly arbitrary the new policy is.

Removing protections for streams across America will adversely affect public health. According the EPA’s own analysis, about 117 million Americans – more than one-third of the total U.S. population – get some or all of their drinking water from public drinking water systems that are supplied, at least in part, by the very streams that are now at risk of pollution.

Protection for up to 20 million acres of wetlands will also be removed based on the administration’s arbitrary approach, which requires a wetland to have a continuous surface water connection to a lake or river to be protected by the Clean Water Act. Because wetlands are so vital for water quality – filtering pollution as water moves across the landscape – and provide crucial habitat for fish and wildlife, most wetlands were historically protected by the Clean Water Act and EPA regulations. In a potentially devastating blow to sportsmen and birders, the new policy would guarantee that prairie potholes and other isolated wetlands essential for waterfowl and other water birds would not be protected by the Clean Water Act. Even under the more protective definition that was repealed today, over 74,000 acres of prairie potholes were lost between 1997 and 2009, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under the new, arbitrary definition, the pace of wetland drainage is certain to increase.

The Trump Administration suggests that this new regulation will not lead to increased pollution because state laws provide duplicative protection for all of the waters once protected by the Clean Water Act. This is blatantly false. Americans cannot depend on state laws to protect the waters left vulnerable by this action because most state laws do not offer the same level of protection. According to EPA’s own analysis used to justify the new definition, protections for streams, wetlands, and other waters will be weakened in 32 states because state protections are not as strong as federal protections had been.

Moreover, 7 states prohibit their state laws from being more stringent than the federal Clean Water Act. Therefore, because certain types of streams are now explicitly excluded from protection under federal law, they are likewise excluded from protection under these state laws. To replace the lost federal protections, these states would have to enact new laws to specifically apply water pollution or wetland drainage provisions to the waters no longer covered by the Clean Water Act.

“Nearly 50 years after passage of the Clean Water Act, we see the signs of water pollution all around us, from algal blooms in the Great Lakes to red tides in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Scott Kovarovics, Executive Director of the Izaak Walton League. “We know that pollution doesn’t just start in the biggest rivers – it starts in the smallest streams, too. Today, the administration retreated from the nation’s fight for clean water, jeopardizing our drinking water, fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation economy.”

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Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League of America protects America’s outdoors through education, community-based conservation, promoting outdoor recreation.