- The Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era and prior rules regulating water pollution.
- Measuring and quantifying pollution is made more confusing and difficult by imprecise policy language.
- It's dicey to say people "own" the waterways on their land when the water passes through and affects others.
President Donald Trump’s administration has taken away a legal definition of American waterways and groundwater that attempted to group them in order to protect them under the 1972 Clean Water Act. The rule effectively removes environmental protections for streams, wetlands, and groundwater.
While yesterday was the final step, the Trump administration first acted last September. The issue is with the actual phrase “waters of the United States” which, much like the language of the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is just not a precise term. From the beginning, the Clean Water Act left holes for interpretation. The act refers to navigable waterways, but does that mean small bodies of water like streams and wetlands that aren’t navigable except maybe by tiny and specialized crafts? What is the scope of the “waters of the United States”?
In some cases, the government's words seem purposefully obtuse, but water is, well, slippery. People own land that includes streams and wetlands, and with some glaring exceptions, what they do on their own land has been considered pretty much their own business—literally, in the case of industrial farms that turn out some of the world’s highest proportions of pollutants.
If dry land existed in a vacuum, much less of this pollution would make it off of farms, but a network of waterways helps drain both halves of the U.S. all the way into the oceans. Water from North Dakota’s border with Canada washes all the way into the Atlantic Ocean. Water’s ability to travel far and wide makes it more like air pollution in the sense it affects everyone and defies arbitrary border and landowner distinctions.
There are a few places on Earth that are called endorheic basins, meaning their drainage doesn’t make its way toward any ocean or sea. Even so, water in these basins circulates within them, affecting local ecosystems arguably more in some ways—there’s no plausible deniability by claiming the pollutants will just be washed away and drain out. And since water evaporates but leaves most pollutants behind, chemicals stay where they are.
Liquid water flowing through topsoil and into the groundwater supply has no such limitation. And it’s not just intentional actors dropping pollution into water—different facilities of all kinds release chemicals and detritus that gets into water because water touches almost everything. Like the circulation system inside your body, smaller and smaller tendrils of water reach into and saturate the entire ecosystem.
During President Barack Obama’s administration, he passed regulations to try to protect less visible waterways, including tiny streams and underwater flow. Trump’s actions roll back those newer definitions altogether, but they also free landowners (including golf course owners, who the New York Times says are one of the biggest interested groups in Trump’s new policy) from protective rules that date back to the Clean Water Act itself. Lobbyists for the agriculture industry and fossil fuels joined golf course owners in praising the act.
The bottom line is whether someone can dump whatever they want into a water supply that will reach your backyard garden or children’s school in a month. In that sense, owning only the land now entitles people to treat the passing water however they choose.
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