By: Jack Stauss
Keep our waters clean! Keep our creeks pristine!
Last week, the Trump Administration dismantled wetland and river protections, some of which have existed for 50 years, since the Clean Water Act. This will have lasting negative impacts on our fragile desert ecosystems.
Wait, back up, what happened?
In 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidential election, he did so with promises to undo Obama era laws and regulations. He pandered to rural Americans, painting President Obama’s laws as “federal overreach.” He got the support of industries by telling them he would cut the red tape. They would be able to carry out dirty, inexpensive business practices without punishment.
Recently he followed through on these promises, targeting the rivers we love. In September, he repealed an Obama act “Waters of the United States”, and this past Thursday, he replaced it with his own law regarding America’s rivers, the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.” It removes protections for millions of acres of wetlands and of small streams and creeks all over the country.
What this means for water in the West
While Trump’s new law continues to protect “large” waterways and rivers, it strips protection for small or seasonal creeks and rivers. Many of the rivers we love here in the West are exactly that. The Desert Southwest is a feast or famine environment, aridity and scarcity define our lives and our landscapes. So, a creek that is dried up is now available as a place for, let’s say a mine or a large scale agriculture operation, waste to be dumped. Yes, this means pollutants and pesticides into the small tributaries that feed the bigger rivers that we raft, drink, and that plants and animals rely on. These small threats might not seem like much individually, but their sum impact will have serious ramifications downstream.
Make no mistake – this rule will harm the places we love. A cracked and dry creek in the summer becomes a lush and vibrant habitat teeming with life in the spring. It twists through remote red rock canyons, past a lonely abandoned cabin. We relax on a ducky and let it float us through the landscape. Eventually, it will feed into the mighty Colorado River. Now, it can legally be a sewer for a coal mine.
Worse still, this rule strips protections for areas not only protected under President Obama, but also rivers and wetlands that have been safe from pollution since the Clean Water Act, 50 years ago. In this article for the New York Times, environmental legal expert Blan Holman says that “this is the biggest loss of clean water protection the country has ever seen.”
So what’s next?
The rule will be challenged in the courts throughout the nation, and they have a lot to stand on. The EPA and other scientific bodies have stated that this new rule is not founded in any scientific reality. It doesn’t make sense to protect some wetlands and rivers and not others because they are all pieces of the same systems. All rivers connect to one another. If we have polluted creeks, we have polluted bigger rivers and groundwater.
We also need to be advocates for these places in our local communities. We can partner with nonprofit organizations and companies that promise to protect rivers. We can educate ourselves about the realities of Trump’s laws. And more than anything, we can support politicians that pledge to uphold the highest protection of our rivers.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram