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Crystal clean water? Not if Trump can help it

by Jeff Peterson

When asked about climate change and the environment in the first presidential debate, President Trump stated, “I want crystal clean water and air.” As we mark the 48th anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act on Oct. 18, the president’s words ring hollow.

For most of the past 48 years, the Clean Water Act produced dramatic improvements in the quality of our nation’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters. But problems persist: In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that 46 percent of rivers and streams were in poor condition, contaminated with pollutants. That was also true of 21 percent of lakes and 14 percent of coastal waters.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s unrelenting rollback of clean water protections is stalling progress toward fixing these problems and endangering a half-century’s worth of gains.

Let’s start with the budget. One core element of our nation’s commitment to clean water is federal funding to states to construct sewage treatment plants. For FY 2021, the president proposed to cut this funding by 32 percent. This cut would come at a time when the need for clean water infrastructure is estimated to be $271 billion. Worse, this reduction is in the context of a potentially devastating overall cut to the EPA budget in FY 2021 of 27 percent.

Enforcement is essential to meeting the Clean Water Act’s goal of “fishable and swimmable” waterways. But a new study looked at 14 years of data and reported a 70 percent decrease in Clean Water Act prosecutions under Trump. Report authors concluded, “It is hard to overstate the significance” of this decrease, speculating that one explanation may be “uncertainty about the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act” resulting from Trump administration regulatory changes to narrow the scope of waters protected by the act.

Effective enforcement is not the only victim of the Trump administration’s changes to the scope of the waters protected by the act. Some 117 million Americans get their drinking water from small streams that may be left unprotected following revisions to regulations taking effect this past June. In February, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board wrote that the revision “decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not provide a scientific basis in support of its consistency with the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”

The Trump administration has often embraced the conservative cause of “states’ rights” — except when it comes to protecting the environment. The original Clean Water Act allowed states to go further than the federal government to protect waters under their jurisdiction. But the Trump administration recently finalized rules cutting back state authority to review and approve federal permits or licenses that allow pollution of state waters.

Trump’s support for the coal industry also impacts water quality. Coal-fired power plants threaten water bodies with discharges that include arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium and cadmium. In August, the Trump administration finalized rules to extend timelines for compliance and exempt facilities that are closing, repowering or switching to natural gas by 2028. Other rule changes would extend timelines and potentially weaken standards for coal ash disposal sites, which pose a risk to groundwater and nearby waterways.

Still more actions to weaken the Clean Water Act are in the pipeline. The Trump administration has proposed new guidance for compliance with Clean Water Act enforcement actions, extending the grace period for some polluters from 25 to up to 40 years.

And EPA has announced plans to limit its own authority to reject permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for development in wetlands. A memorandum from former Administrator Scott Pruitt indicates that this change is intended to limit EPA authority to protect places like Bristol Bay in Alaska. Bristol Bay is the site of the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon; it is threatened by the Pebble Mine project, which would destroy over 3,000 acres of wetlands.

Edmund S. Muskie, a former U.S. Senator from Maine and author of the 1972 Clean Water Act, said “High quality water is more than the dream of the conservationists, more than a political slogan; high quality water, in the right quantity at the right place at the right time, is essential to health, recreation, and economic growth.”

Americans should keep in mind the importance of clean water — and the Trump administration’s sabotage of regulations that protect this precious resource — when they vote on Nov. 3.

Jeff Peterson is a retired senior policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and the author of A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published October 18, 2020 on The Hill.

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Urban Resilience Project

Urban Resilience Project


A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.