What just happened?
The 1972 Clean Water Act has proven to be one of the most important federal laws for keeping water clean ever since Ohio’s Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire in 1969 — and upwards of 13 times in decades prior — because of the sheer quantity of pollutants in the water.
But in December 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Army Corps of Engineers announced they intend to redefine which water bodies would be protected by the Clean Water Act (CWA) from pollution and development. If adopted, the changes to the CWA would put the quality of drinking water, groundwater, wetlands, and streams in jeopardy nationwide — although in Washington State, we are fortunate to have protective state laws that don’t rely solely on the CWA’s bare minimums. Read below for more details.
This means local work and collaborations with Washington State, as well as with county and city agencies will be more important than ever if the already bare minimum federal standards are weakened under the new proposed regulation.
Making sure we maintain protections at the state and local level is our backstop to ensuring clean water for drinking, salmon habitat, and — by extension — endangered Southern Resident orcas, who rely on having enough salmon to eat.
The CWA has always included, and would still include, “traditionally navigable” waterways, though the language prior to 2015 was ambiguous and left polluters a lot of leeway in many parts of the country. But the recent proposal would outright eliminate protections introduced in 2015 for isolated wetlands, and for certain other water bodies such as streams and ditches not permanently connected to “traditionally navigable waters.”
What it means for Washington and RE Sources’ work
There is some hopeful news for Washington, however. Because our state laws already provide a stronger framework for safeguarding water than the federal Clean Water Act, Washington still has jurisdiction over its state waters. Washington State’s Department of Ecology defines what types of waterways to protect, and creates and enforces standards.
This is why RE Sources’ and others’ work with the Department of Ecology is so important. Now that the national safety net for clean water is being threatened, our local and state agencies are truly on the front lines, without help from the EPA. The work we do as a community and with local agencies matters now more than ever.
RE Sources provides Ecology with scientific comments on permits they grant to ensure they are considering impacts to the environment. We push Ecology to uphold their permits and encourage them to maintain high standards for the water bodies they protect, “traditionally navigable” or not. We work alongside Ecology and others on the Nooksack Watershed (WRIA-1) Planning Unit to ensure proper management of our water supply and enough clean water and habitat to restore salmon populations.
We are fortunate to live in a state that has many good, local protections in place beyond the minimum level the CWA mandates. But we can only protect water inside state lines. Our neighbors, like Idaho and Oregon, rely on the federal guidelines to protect state waters; the CWA changes could leave important salmon-bearing streams open to greater human impact.
Even though Washington has more robust protections than many other states, conflicting rules from the federal government will create confusion and could undermine efforts to stop ecologically and economically valuable wetlands from being polluted or filled in for development.
What Clean Water Act weakening means for clean water in the U.S.
The Obama administration added language in 2015 that clarified the Clean Water Act and protected more water bodies like isolated wetlands, but the rule was never fully implemented in most states, and some unclear language remained. So far, only 25 state governments, including Washington, have made the choice to assert their right to maintain more thorough protections than federal minimums.
This 2018 change would make Clean Water Act language unambiguously exclude many more waterways than ever before.
By specifically removing language to protect otherwise-ignored water bodies, this move from the Trump administration adds false credibility to those who devalue the role of science in making decisions — the federal government is ignoring mountains of research that shows how important wetlands and less-connected water bodies are to ecosystems, to drinking water, and to local economies.
According to the international Waterkeeper Alliance, of which our North Sound Baykeeper is a member, this proposal would “cut Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands across 3,000-plus watersheds in the western United States” and “accelerate the extinction of more than 75 endangered species, from steelhead trout to California tiger salamanders.” The changes would be especially dangerous for wetlands, which are often not directly connected to major rivers. American wetlands are key habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species, provide trillions of dollars in economic value, by improving drinking water quality, providing flood control, critical habitat, and can even sequester billions of tons of climate-damaging carbon dioxide.
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First 2 photos by Brett Baunton. Third photo by Barry Spencer.