Wetlands and streams are personal to me. I grew up wading through wetlands in Northern New York, seeing and smelling skunk cabbage growing near streams before the snow was fully melted, and uncovering crayfish under rocks in the little streams near our house. That’s why it has been difficult for me to write about the Trump Administration’s destructive proposal to dramatically reduce the scope of Clean Water Act (CWA) protection of wetlands and small streams by redefining what constitutes “waters of the U.S.”
I grew up with a long leash, and I’m grateful for that today. There were six of us and my mom was seriously outnumbered. In the summer, we woke up early, had a quick breakfast and went out for the day. We explored our surroundings, wandered until we encountered electric fences we were too scared to test, and came back for lunch. In the afternoons, we swam and continued our outdoor explorations for hours until we got hungry. The little streams and wetlands were ever-present, and I couldn’t tell you then or now which were “ephemeral,” “intermittent” or “perennial,” terms that only took on meaning for me 40 years later.
Professionally I trained to be an urban planner, but when I finished graduate school, I accepted a great opportunity to enter the federal government as a Presidential Management Intern with the Department of the Army, and transitioned to a job at EPA in 1983. That began a wonderful 34-year career at the premier environmental organization the world has ever known. As I moved into various senior leadership positions at EPA, I kept hoping to return to my roots in wetlands and streams. In 2005, I was as selected as Director of EPA’s Wetlands Division. Pinch me, this was a dream come true.
The very next year, that dream became a legal nightmare when the Supreme Court decided in a split decision in the Rapanos case that the “wetlands” in question needed better documentation to be protected under the Clean Water Act. This compounded the uncertain status of so-called “isolated” wetlands not directly connected to streams, an issue addressed by a similarly divided Supreme Court in the 2001 SWANCC case.
For the next decade I was proud to spend a majority of my time at EPA bolstering the scientific and legal basis for reasserting CWA protections for the broad network of wetlands and streams that deliver underappreciated ecological services to our country. Working in partnership with a caring scientific and legal community, we developed rock-solid documentation of the need for legal protection of the full network of wetlands and streams, large and small, that together deliver the human health and ecological services on which our very lives depend. Ultimately, ecological protections we took for granted generations ago, and came to appreciate more when they were jeopardized, were again well protected under the Clean Water Rule, completed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in 2015.
Of course, it’s not that simple in the 21st Century. Litigation immediately ensued, and the clear and comprehensive protection of small streams and wetlands provided by the Clean Water Rule was challenged in the courts. The rule was set aside by court action in many parts of the U.S., and the geographic scope of the CWA was again in question. And then the 2016 election occurred.
I retired with no regrets from the federal government in 2017 and moved to a front-line position with a state environmental agency. From there, I watched EPA’s new political leadership task my former staff and colleagues with undoing the work they were so proud to have accomplished to instead craft a narrow, legally-driven rationale to shrink CWA protection to just half the streams and wetlands that science says warrant such protection. The quality of our drinking water, and even more, the ecological health of our nation’s water resources requires protection of the full network of small streams and wetlands.
As documented thoroughly and compellingly in the technical rationale for the 2015 Clean Water Rule, streams that flow infrequently and wetlands not directly connected with streams are essential to the ecological health of all of our nation’s water resources and the public health benefits these waters provide. Sadly, the regulatory definition of “waters of the U.S.” proposed by the Trump Administration would undermine protecting the “chemical, physical, and biological” integrity of the nation’s waters, the very purpose of the CWA.
For the sake of our water resources and in the interests of my children, grandchildren and the generations to come, I request that the proposed Waters of the United States rule that would limit CWA protection to only perennial and intermittent streams, and to the few wetlands that directly connect to them (a minority of the remaining half of our country’s original wetlands), be set aside. Instead, the 2015 Clean Water Rule is an appropriate starting point for any fine-tuning of the CWA’s geographic scope. Any future proposed revision of the geographic scope of the Clean Water Act’s coverage should be based on sound science and an objective assessment of the law.
In short, try again. EPA should respond to legal challenges to the 2015 Clean Water Rule with targeted refinements of current policy, as opposed to an about-face on the policy that was developed in full compliance with administrative procedures and documented with thorough scientific and legal rationales.
This op-ed was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.
Teaser photo credit: By Toriqul Islam – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0