New rules limiting clean water protections ignore stream science

Photo: Sections of the Little Colorado River in northern Arizona are ephemeral, flowing most frequently during the spring to accommodate snowmelt runoff or during the summer monsoon season. In this view, the river is at flood stage, with water cascading over the falls. Dale Nations/Flickr CC

On Dec. 11, the Trump administration announced plans to cut back the number of wetlands and creeks protected under the Clean Water Act, which regulates water pollution in the U.S. The new rules would leave about half the nation’s wetlands and all of its ephemeral streams — those waterways, common in the West, that flow only after rainfall or snowmelt — without federal safeguards.

The proposed guidelines, which will almost certainly face years of lawsuits, are a stark departure from how previous administrations have interpreted the act — and a sharp divergence from research on how to protect clean water. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers argued that the new rules were informed by science. But the agencies did not conduct a new scientific assessment of which waterways the Clean Water Act should cover; instead, they relied on a comprehensive report prepared by the EPA in 2015. That report, on how streams and wetlands are connected to downstream waters, highlights the importance of the very waterways the new guidelines would leave unprotected.

High Country News recently caught up with Ellen Wohl, a river researcher and professor at Colorado State University who served on the scientific review committee for the 2015 EPA report, to find out how scientists view the new guidelines.

High Country News: Does this proposed rule match what researchers know is important for protecting clean water?

Ellen Wohl: Absolutely not. It’s diametrically opposed to how the scientific community understands rivers as ecosystems, and river function.

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New rules limiting clean water protections ignore stream science
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New rules limiting clean water protections ignore stream science
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Does the new rule match what we know about protecting clean water? No. It’s diametrically opposed to how the scientific community understands rivers.
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High Country News
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