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Only the profits will flow upstream

Translational Ecology
by Bill Schlesinger
Tue Jan 28th, 2020

Last week, sometime in the midst of the floodwater of testimony excoriating the President’s behavior in Ukraine, his administration reduced protections of surface waters across the United States, as afforded by the Clean Water Rule. This comes at a time when adequate supplies of high quality fresh water for human use are in peril, and many cities have uncertain water supplies for future growth. The proposed rollbacks contradict the conclusions of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the Environmental Protection Agency, and its “Connectivity Report” of 2015. Apparently science does not inform policy when it comes to a removing policies of the Obama administration.

Operatives within the Environmental Protection Agency seem to overlook a basic law of physics—going back to Biblical times and reinforced by Newton’s observations of gravity—that water flows downhill to the sea. What enters the smallest streams, what environmental scientists call “first order” streams that have no tributaries, passes to larger streams and rivers that are navigable and thus fully covered by the Clean Water Act. But following Newton’s law, these small freshwater ecosystems have “connectivity.”—what enters at the headwaters inevitably determines water quality downstream. Ephemeral and intermittent streams comprise more than 2/3 of all streams in the lower 48 United States. Eliminating protection for first order and seasonal (ephemeral) streams means that anything dumped in the headwaters would be exempt from pollution laws. Have the laws of physics been reversed?

Further, protection would be eliminated for wetlands and water bodies with no permanent connections to navigable waters, including the floodplains of rivers and seasonal ponds. Floodplains are important areas where pollutants are filtered and eliminated from flowing waters, albeit only when they flood. Also known as vernal pools, seasonal wetlands are also important areas of wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, and denitrification—habitats where soil bacteria can remove nitrate and convert it to nitrogen gas that fills 78% of our atmosphere.

Farmers have always enjoyed some freedom regarding the waters draining their fields, but elimination of the Clean Water Rule by the proposed changes, would make it nearly impossible to regulate the increasing flow of nitrate and phosphate into the Great Lakes from agricultural sources. The citizens of Toledo should be outraged.

These roll-backs are said to be good for business. They are motivated by real estate developers, who want to have the fewest restrictions on how lands are managed. The mining industry is also lobbying for fewer restrictions, since mine tailings are often drained by first-order streams that would become free of regulations. The chemical industry would be free to dump wastes, including “forever” pollutants, into small streams that feed larger watercourses on their way to the sea. Short-term profits flow upstream to a few; unhealthy water flows downstream to the many.

Importantly, once lost or polluted, headwater streams, floodplain habitats, and seasonal ponds are likely gone forever. The environmental degradation will last far beyond the Trump Administration, and cause future citizens to ask who got the benefits. We will have a chance to remember why this fall.