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ASK EARTHA: What is happening with the rollback on water protection?

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha,

I heard about the new rollback on water protection in the U.S. Can you help me understand what this means and if there’s anything we can do about it?

Last Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans for a new definition of “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS. The plan is known as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, and replaces the 2015 Clean Water Rule put in place under former President Obama’s administration. That was repealed last fall, and now the Navigable Waters Protection Rule defines the scope of water protection in the U.S. under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

A Little History Lesson

The new rule goes beyond simply reversing the 2015 one. It removes certain waterways covered under the original Clean Water Act, which aims to protect large bodies of water (think Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, the Great Lakes), navigable rivers (think larger rivers, like the Colorado), smaller headwaters (like those of the Blue River), and wetlands that are adjacent to large bodies of water.

It originally aimed at creating waterways safe for swimming and fishing, and acknowledged that municipalities and industries were the worst offenders, regularly dumping pollutants directly into waterways. By the 1990s the EPA had largely put an end to this direct pollution and shifted its focus to sectors with indirect effects. This means runoff and erosion from mines, oil and natural gas fields, farms, logging, and construction sites. The EPA reported in 2000 that these indirect activities were the top causes for 40 percent of waterways remaining unsafe. Since then, scientists agree that wetlands play a key role in filtering pollutants.

Fast forward to 2015 – protection extended to groundwater, all wetlands, seasonal streams, and “ephemeral” streams (those that only flow after rainfall). Those waterways, as well as small headwater streams that have been protected since the 1970s, will now be removed from WOTUS. That equates to about 18 percent of American stream and rivers miles and 51 percent of wetlands, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Hydrography Dataset. In Colorado, such streams make up to 62 percent of surface drinking water and an even higher 69 percent in Summit County.

What it Means for the Environment

The new rule means that the government is placing economic interests before the environment and the public. Mines, factories, loggers, giant farms and developers are given the opportunity to pollute at the expense of the planet’s health. But what are the consequences, if any? The water cycle demonstrates that water everywhere is connected. If we allow pollutants to be used freely near, or even dumped outright, into any waterway, those pollutants will travel around. Consider the state of Colorado. Water from our mountains travels to 19 other states, making it arguably one of the most vital states in maintaining clean water. Our major rivers (the Platte, Colorado, Arkansas, and Rio Grande) and their major tributaries (think Blue, Gunnison, and Eagle rivers) are protected, while the sources of those tributaries are not.

This pollution means unsafe conditions for wildlife and plants. It poses a risk to delicate ecology in, and  around, waterways. It could also mean potentially unsafe drinking water for humans, and certainly will make some waterways unsuitable for swimming or even fishing, an important industry in a state like ours.

While pollution is a concern overall, wetlands face outright destruction. Even though the EPA has acknowledged their vital importance, they’ll no longer be protected. They are commonly dredged and filled for development. And, as we all can see, Colorado’s development is booming. In our state alone, wetlands comprise around one million acres and have decreased in size by about one half in the last two centuries, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

What Can You Do?

As a citizen, you can call your local elected officials and ask for urgent action. Aside from that, strive to prevent pollution of our waterways as much as possible. Refuse to use pesticides and fertilizers on your  garden, landscaping, and lawn. Take the challenge and be an organic gardener. Then, lead by example and help instill a horticultural mindset that doesn’t revolve around these pollutants. The benefits go beyond clean water, too.

You should also always responsibly dispose of household hazardous waste (or HHW — chemicals, paints, stains, cleaning products) and pharmaceuticals – services free to you as a resident of Summit County. These should never be dumped down a drain or toilet. Do your part by taking HHW to the Summit County Resource Allocation Park, and pharmaceuticals to the Summit County Justice Center, the Dillon Police Department, or Prescription Alternatives in Frisco. Hours and details can be found at HighCountryConservation.org/recycle.

You should consider what businesses you’re supporting. Large, factory-style farms contribute a great deal of pollution to our waterways. You can also encourage those around you to follow in your footsteps. Vote with your dollars, and vote in every election. I’ll see you at the ballot box this April for local elections!

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