Guest Commentary

Don’t wash away protections for Waters of the United States

Brothers Henry and Wilson Wesch look into a Kansas stream, as their little brother George watches while being held by their father Mike Wesch. Their mother Sarah sits on rocks to the right. Helping the boys with the dip net is Ryan Klataske. His wife Rachel is next to Mike Wesch, and his mother Carol is in the background.
Brothers Henry and Wilson Wesch look into a Kansas stream, as their little brother George watches while being held by their father Mike Wesch. Their mother Sarah sits on rocks to the right. Helping the boys with the dip net is Ryan Klataske. His wife Rachel is next to Mike Wesch, and his mother Carol is in the background.

The CWA, the Clean Water Act passed by Congress in 1972, was designed to protect our nation’s streams and rivers, lakes and wetlands. Maintaining water quality is vital to a healthy environment, safe drinking water, our quality of life and a vibrant economy.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has issued a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers proposing revisions that would dramatically redefine and reduce what the federal government recognizes as “Waters of the United States,” worthy of protection from pollution or alterations that threaten to adversely affect water quality, streams and wetlands.

The CWA set the course for stewardship of water quality encompassing watersheds — even when they extend across state lines. The water that residents depend on in Kansas City flows from vast watersheds in nine states. Maintaining high standards of water quality is essential for healthy communities, and a critically important role of the EPA that is not always adequately addressed by state agencies.

Section 404 of the CWA is designed to protect land and water in additional ways. It has helped establish a land ethic based on protection of wetlands and the natural courses of streams and rivers from physical destruction. Under the Farm Bill, Congress appropriates billions of taxpayer dollars each year to help agricultural producers control erosion, sedimentation and pollution. However, the effectiveness of that investment in incentive-based conservation practices would be diminished by the rollback of protection of the same waters if this proposed rule is adopted.

Although advocates for the changes have suggested that they are needed to remove regulations on farmland, there are already longstanding exemptions in the Clean Water Act for normal agriculture practices. In fact, the primary beneficiaries of the rollback would be developers and polluting industries, which presumably do not want to be held accountable.

Section 404 requires permits from the Corps of Engineers before wetlands and streams can be dredged, drained or filled. Wetlands and meandering tributary streams in the headwaters of larger rivers are important for retaining waters, thereby reducing the severity of downstream flooding.

The new revisions would leave millions of acres of wetlands — more than half of the wetlands in the country — without protection. This includes most of the ecologically critical prairie potholes in the Dakotas necessary for waterfowl breeding. Wetlands provide habitat for a diversity of species, including endangered whooping cranes and other wading birds, shorebirds, waterbirds and songbirds. Hunters, anglers, wildlife viewing enthusiasts and everyone who cherishes wildlife would eventually have less to enjoy.

The proposed rule would remove protections from tributary streams that have “ephemeral,” or intermittent flows, even though they support an incredible diversity of aquatic and terrestrial life. Protection of water quality within small streams is essential for downstream rivers and for inflows into wetlands of all sizes, including Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas.

In many locations in the Great Plains, once-perennial streams and rivers — including the Arkansas River in southwest Kansas — are now dry for extended periods because of the state’s over-appropriation of stream flows and groundwater for irrigation. If they were declared ephemeral, their remaining values will be exposed to destruction or pollution without legal recourse.

Most natural resource conservation organizations are opposed to the proposed revision of the Waters of the United States. Organizations devoted to public health, including the Children’s Environmental Health Network, are also partners in the Clean Water for All campaign, which you can see at protectcleanwater.org under “partners.”

We believe the Clean Water Act, including the 2015 definition of Waters of the United States, should be retained in its existing form with no more than technical improvements to provide better clarity.

Comments from the public will be accepted by the agencies until April 15. Go to regulations.gov and search “Waters of the United States.” Add your voice.

Ron Klataske is executive director of Audubon of Kansas, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

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