The Trump administration's proposed rollback of federal protections for thousands of miles of waterways and vast stretches of wetlands will undermine cleanup efforts for the Chesapeake Bay, conservationists say.
At risk are “ephemeral” streams that flow after a rain or snowmelt and isolated wetlands that filter pesticides and fertilizer from the bay and its rivers as well as provide essential wildlife habitat.
“Clean water is a right, not a luxury,” said Lisa Feldt, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a statement. “The Chesapeake Bay clean water blueprint is working. Now is not the time for the federal government to weaken efforts to reduce pollution.”
The blueprint is a “pollution diet” imposed in 2010 on Virginia and other bay jurisdictions by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce nutrients and sediment dumped into the watershed. Recent studies show the health of the bay is improving as a result.
Geoff Gisler, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the Trump plan “a sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act.”
“Out of all the anti-environmental attacks we have seen from this administration, this may be the most far-reaching and destructive,” Gisler said.
The proposed rollback redefines “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.
It comes after years of effort by real estate developers, rural landowners, farmers, golf course owners and some Republican lawmakers to overturn the Obama water rule that clarified and expanded federal protections for upland streams and wetlands, including more than half the streams in Virginia.
That rule was developed by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers and adopted in 2015. It was immediately blasted by opponents as federal overreach and an EPA “land grab.”
Because it restricted some agriculture on land near streams and wetlands, farmers worried they would have to pay for costly consultants and permits to determine which land they could use.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement that the proposed rollback is “rooted in common sense.”
“This new rule will empower farmers and ranchers to comply with the law, protect our water resources and productively work their land without having to hire an army of lawyers and consultants,” Duvall said.
The Obama rule also constrained developers from building on isolated wetlands, while the Trump rule would offer federal protections only to wetlands that are adjacent to a major body of water or connected to it by surface water. Critics say that definition ignores the many wetlands that are connected by underground water.
The proposed rule would keep protections for intermittent or seasonally flowing streams, but strip them from ephemeral streams.
An earlier EPA study found that nearly 60 percent of U.S. waterways are ephemeral and intermittent, but EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler now disputes that figure.
Wheeler says the new rule would give states and landowners “the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow local economies.”
Conservation groups, however, say it would be a setback for clean water efforts in Virginia.
A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project says the rollback risks more than 37,809 miles of Virginia’s intermittent or ephemeral streams, or more than half the state’s total miles of waterways.
While intermittent streams — and not ephemeral ones — would be protected under the proposed rule, the report says the distinction between the two is “likely to sow confusion and leave an unknown number of streams unprotected.”
Also at risk are about 34,500 acres of isolated wetlands on the Delmarva Peninsula on the Eastern Shore.
“Not many people have heard of the isolated wetlands, called ‘Delmarva potholes,’” said EIP’s executive director Eric Schaeffer. “But they perform an important role by working in clusters to filter runoff pollution from the farms on the Eastern Shore.”
Schaeffer is a former director of civil enforcement at EPA.
Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said in a statement that “streams and tributaries in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna, Potomac, Shenandoah, James and many other rivers, as well as a huge number of wetlands, would not receive protections” under the Trump plan.
“Lest we forget,” Nicholas said, “we all live downstream.”
The proposed rule hasn’t published yet in the Federal Register. When it does, a 60-day public comment period will begin.