Environmental activists got an unwelcome gift from the federal government on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, when officials with the Environmental Protection Agency revoked clean-water protections for thousands of streams across Colorado. Now advocates and state officials are taking President Donald Trump’s administration to court.
One of many bedrock environmental laws targeted for rollbacks by the Trump administration, the Clean Water Act has protected the “waters of the United States,” including rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands, since its passage in 1972. But a rule change announced by the Trump administration on April 21 would dramatically narrow the definition of those “waters,” removing protections for many wetlands and smaller, intermittent streams, and potentially threatening ecosystems and drinking water supplies.
“What it really does is put irresponsible developers and polluters in the driver’s seat, and allows them to pollute waterways,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya of environmental advocacy group GreenLatinos. “People are going to be possibly exposed to more toxins in the water just from recreating in it — but it also leads to higher utility bills, because utilities will have to do the work to clean it.”
The EPA’s decision will hit especially hard in Colorado and other Western states where water is already a precious resource. The new rule excludes all “ephemeral” streams, which only flow after rainfall or snowmelt, and some “intermittent” streams, which only flow for part of the year. An estimated 55 percent of streams in Colorado are classified as intermittent or ephemeral, according to conservation group Trout Unlimited.
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“It’s terrible for the entire West,” Tafoya says. “We know that our water comes in booms and busts.”
Under the new rule, which will formally take effect on June 20, developers and industrial interests will be able to build in many wetland areas or near ephemeral streams without applying for Clean Water Act permits. That could dramatically speed up construction of projects like oil and gas pipelines, while environmental-review processes are significantly weakened.
“Lobbyists for corporate agribusiness, developers, and the oil and gas industry have long demanded that federal protections be removed for streams and wetlands,” says Hannah Collazo, director of Environment Colorado. “This is just plain wrong. Clean water is vital for our health, our way of life, and for nature itself.”
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Environmental groups have already announced plans to sue over what they call Trump’s “Dirty Water Rule,” and so has Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who said in a statement that the administration’s decision is “based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis.”
“The final rule threatens to create unacceptable impacts to the state’s ability to protect our precious state water resources, and, in the absence of extraordinary state efforts to fill the gaps left by the federal government, will harm Colorado’s economy and water quality,” Weiser said. “We are going to take legal action to protect Colorado waters and prevent the harmful aspects of the final rule from taking effect here.”
It will be just the latest battle between supporters of strong environmental protections and the Trump administration, which is fast-tracking dozens of major regulatory changes favored by industry groups as the 2020 election nears. Fifty years after the first Earth Day, federal environmental laws are more vulnerable than ever, leaving states like Colorado to pick up the slack.
“The saddest thing about these continued rollbacks, whether we’re talking about air quality or water quality, is that it’s putting a lot of the onus onto the states to protect themselves rather than the federal government,” Tafoya says. “You should be entitled to the same water quality whether you live in Alabama or you live in Colorado.”