Defying environmentalists and public health advocates, the Trump administration on Thursday will announce the replacement of Obama-era water protections with a significantly weaker set of regulations that lifts limits on how much pollution can be dumped into small streams and wetlands.
The changes to the Clean Water Act’s protections are expected to hit California and other Western states especially hard.
Federal data suggest 81% of streams in the Southwest would lose long-held protections, including tributaries to major waterways that millions of people rely on for drinking water.
Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to announce the new rules in Las Vegas at a conference of the National Association of Home Builders — one of the industry groups that pushed for loosening clean water rules
Under the new rule, polluters will no longer need a permit to release contaminated water into so-called ephemeral streams — sometimes called washes or arroyos — where water flows only occasionally because of rainstorms and snowmelt. Wetlands that aren’t immediately adjacent to protected waters will also lose protection.
Both of these features are common in Western states, and scientists say they are likely to become more so as warming temperatures make a dry climate drier.
Clean water regulations are “essentially about how you provide drinking water. How you store flood waters. How you protect ecosystems that thrive in certain areas that we all need and want,” said Gina McCarthy, president of the nonpartisan Natural Resources Defense Council and a former EPA administrator under President Obama, in an interview shortly before the rule’s unveiling. “This is a big deal issue, and I don’t think it was thoroughly looked at as it should have.”
In a rebuke to the Trump administration, the EPA’s own advisory board criticized the agency’s plans.
“These changes are proposed without a fully supportable scientific basis, while potentially introducing substantial new risks to human and environmental health,” the board wrote in its commentary.
In California, two out of three of the state’s freshwater streams could lose federal protection.
Yet the state is better positioned than others to weather the changes. Waters that lose protection under the Trump rule will still be covered under California law. And state regulators have strengthened protections for wetlands and streams in anticipation of the federal rollback.
Most states don’t have nearly enough […]