Obama’s clean water rule won’t protect the West’s water

 

Summer is here! This is the time when the great outdoors beckons, and we can’t wait to get out to the rivers of the American West to raft, fish, swim and just cool off. But unfortunately, the water we all enjoy has just become imperiled by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Though the EPA’s new “Clean Water Rule” updates the 43-year-old Clean Water Act, it fails to help Westerners because it is too weak to protect our region’s lakes, rivers and streams. The rule was the product of an EPA-appointed, 52-member Science Advisory Board, which reviewed and made use of 1,200 scientific articles on protecting rivers, lakes, and streams across America. However, the EPA ignored part of the board’s advice on key areas of concern to Westerners.

Obama’s new rule leaves thousands of mountain streams in the mountainous West and arid Southwest more vulnerable to pollution. It decreases the number and amount of rivers and water protected, contains significant new exemptions and loopholes for corporate polluters, and lacks the clarity needed to prevent the case-by-case determinations that have exposed Americans to polluted waterways nationwide.

First and most important for Westerners, Obama’s new rule did not adopt the Science Advisory Board’s recommendation to include language about what defines a “tributary” and a “perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral stream.” In a semi-arid environment like the Southwest, the majority of streams in the mountains and across the plains only flow intermittently during the late spring and summer, after the snow melts. But it’s extremely important to protect these ephemeral streams because they flow into (are “tributary”) to the year-round flowing rivers and streams across the state.

Unfortunately, the rule states that “the agencies did not make this (rule) change” for “ephemeral streams with arid and semi-arid environments.” That means many streams in the Western United States will remain in limbo: Are they, or are they not, protected by the Clean Water Act? This might well result in more case-by-case determinations and lengthy delays as the courts get to decide what is a stream and what is not.

Second, the new rule clearly and emphatically states that fewer miles of streams and less water are now protected than under the previous Clean Water Act regulation. In fact, the rule’s preamble says: "The scope of jurisdiction in this rule is narrower than that under the existing regulation. Fewer waters will be defined as ‘waters of the United States’ under the rule than under the existing regulations, in part because the rule puts important qualifiers on some existing categories such as tributaries." This narrowing will certainly cause more of the West's streams to lose protection.

Finally, the new rule contains several new exemptions and loopholes that may allow corporate polluters to further degrade America’s waterways. New exemptions and loopholes now exist for the factory farm and the fossil-fuel industries. The rule states: “The agencies for the first time also establish by rule that certain ditches are excluded from jurisdiction. …” The type of ditches described in the exclusion are those that can flow intermittently from factory farms and fracking sites and end up in our waterways in the West.
These exemptions may make some problems dramatically worse. This is just one example out of hundreds of examples across the West: At the confluence of the Cache la Poudre and South Platte rivers in Colorado, there sits a massive feedlot almost a square mile in size. A ditch runs out of that feedlot directly into the South Platte River. Now, thanks to the EPA’s new rule, it is not certain how the ditch will be defined. If the EPA’s new rule decides that it’s ephemeral, it will not be protected by the Clean Water Act.

It is known that as the South Platte River heads toward Nebraska, it is filled with pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, making the river a significant contributor to the 5,000-square-mile “dead zone” of nitrates in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama had a huge opportunity to protect the West's water from corporate polluters and make sure every waterway is drinkable, swimmable and fishable. Unfortunately, his administration’s new clean water rule weakens protections for our waters and creates new categorical exemptions and definitional requirements that are more likely to lead to more litigation in our courtrooms rather than cleaner water in our lakes, rivers and streams.


Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. He is the waterkeeper for the Cache la Poudre River of northern Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.