Last month, the Trump EPA finally issued its intended replacement to the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and R.D. James, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, wrote in the Kansas City Star that less stringent water rules will give “hardworking Americans the freedom and certainty they need to do what they do best: develop, build and invest in projects that improve the environment and the lives of their fellow citizens.”
What’s really going on is that President Trump wants to give the nation’s chronic polluters freedom from consequence for harming ecosystems and the nation’s drinking water.
While Trump has spent nearly two years railing against clean water rules, he has feigned neither a serious scientific nor economic rationale for rolling them back. Much like his assault on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and mercury air toxics standards, the intended beneficiaries of the weaker rules he proposes are indiscriminate developers and operators of mines, power plants, and agribusinesses who have all lobbied for a blind eye to the seepage and runoff of ash, heavy metals, oil, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste.
Using hysteria to shut down science
The Obama administration issued the Waters of the United States rule (WOTUS) in 2015. In so doing, the administration rightly noted that nearly half of America’s river and stream miles and a third of wetlands were in “poor biological condition” and that one out of three Americans drink from water sources without clear federal protection. In an attempt to remedy the situation, the Obama administration’s EPA extended protection beyond large “navigable” waters to less visible bodies that are still vital to healthy ecosystems, such as tributaries, wetlands, prairie potholes, vernal pools, and streams that have natural dry periods or flow only after rainfall.
In actuality, intermittent and ephemeral streams account for 59 percent of all streams in the US outside of Alaska and 81 percent of streams in the arid Southwest. After an EPA review of more than 1,200 published and peer-reviewed scientific reports, the Obama administration decided that America’s seemingly small or isolated waters have tremendous connectivity to navigable rivers used for commerce. Concurring were seven societies of scientists for wetlands, fisheries, freshwater science, and other aspects of ecology. They wrote that wetlands are “Like diamonds, they can be small, but extremely valuable.”
Opponents tried to block Obama’s polishing of these diamonds with wild claims about the harm to the economy. When WOTUS was proposed, then-House Speaker John Boehner condemned it as a “tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs.” The American Farm Bureau called it a “nightmare” that would crush the value of some farmland “by as much as 40 percent.” Lawsuits, including those filed by the US Chamber of Commerce, have pushed the 2015 rule into purgatory; it is currently in force in 22 states and blocked in the remaining 28. The map of states where the rule is or is not in force looks significantly like the electoral map that propelled Trump into office.
A month and a half after taking office, Trump signed a February 2017 executive order to review the rules, claiming, “The EPA’s regulators are putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands.” In June 2018, Scott Pruitt, then Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sarcastically belittled bodies of water he wanted to remove from federal protection, such as prairie potholes, which are major migratory refuges and breeding grounds for waterfowl. Pruitt called them “prairie puddles,” and that removing them from protection in states like North Dakota would “save the economy a billion dollars.” Pruitt and farm lobbyists falsely raised the specter of the federal government swooping in to regulate every ditch dug by a farmer and every rainfall puddle, even though the Obama rule explicitly excluded ordinary puddles and ditches.
A highly dubious cost-benefit analysis
In its warped notion of freedom for polluters, one of the first things Trump’s EPA did to grease the skids for the replacement rule was produce a highly dubious cost-benefit analysis that is the polar opposite of one produced by the Obama EPA.
Under Obama, the EPA projected that the annual costs of complying with enhanced protection might range from $158 million to $465 million. But, it found, the benefits from wetland mitigation, stormwater implementation, and other improvements were significantly more, ranging from $349 million to $572 million. Since then, a 2017 study by researchers at New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity found that, given the value of wetlands and the public’s willingness to pay for them, a more accurate estimate of annual benefits may be between $612 million and $1 billion.
But Trump’s EPA threw out the benefits of protected wetlands in its so-called analysis. That’s because, according to internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the environment and energy news site E&E, the Trump administration would exclude half of the nation’s wetland acreage that has been mapped by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Its cover story for ditching wetland benefits was that studies used by the Obama administration were too old (of course neither Pruitt nor Wheeler bothered to hustle up one of their own). It also said it was too confusing to consider wetlands where state and federal jurisdiction overlap (conveniently ignoring how many conservative state legislatures abandoned such protections). The Trump EPA concluded that its rule would produce only between $34 million to $73 million in annual benefits while avoiding between $162 million and $476 million in compliance costs.
The selective bean counting of the Trump EPA does not stack up against a world of evidence attesting to the value of clean water. To date, neither the administration nor lobbyists have offered evidence of any job loss for the 22 states that have been under the rule. As for cropland values, they soared 55 percent during Obama’s two terms, from $2,640 an acre to $4,090, while rising just one percent in Trump’s first two years amid his international trade wars that have led to falling incomes for farmers in 2019.
Economic benefits of clean water
The attack on clean water risks putting many people out of work. A 2015 study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Yale University found that government and privately funded ecological mitigation programs add up to a $9.5 billion in annual economic output, providing direct jobs to 126,000 Americans with a median salary of nearly $50,000. The biggest shares of jobs are in planning, design, engineering, earth moving, and planting and site construction.
The study authors said their findings run counter to the narrative of the US Chamber of Commerce (and of course now the Trump administration) that environmental regulation has a “corrosive” effect on the economy. Moreover, the study bolstered calculations by University of Massachusetts researchers that reforestation and land and watershed restoration work provide 39 jobs per $1 million invested, compared to five jobs for oil and gas and six for Trump’s economic centerpiece of coal.
Clean water means much higher quality recreation. Several fishing and hunting groups have joined forces with conservation groups to protest the Trump rollback, saying that clean water supports 828,000 jobs in the sports fishing industry. The Trump administration itself, via a US Fish and Wildlife report, boasts that one in three Americans engage annually in hunting, fishing, or some form of wildlife-related recreation, pumping $157 billion into the economy.
With wildlife-related recreation increasing 16 percent since 2011, the report said, with obvious irony, “These findings represent good news for everyone who cares about the health of our wildlife, natural landscapes, and people.”
In even more expansive data, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis says the national outdoor recreation economy was $412 billion in 2016, and growing faster than the general economy with 4.55 million jobs. The most significant core activity by revenue was boating and fishing ($37 billion), the most obvious recreational activity that cannot exist without clean water.
Value of wetlands: priceless
Such analyses don’t come near exhausting the actual value of smaller bodies of water and wetlands. Anyone who lives in the US Northeast should understand that. Scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz and the Nature Conservancy estimate that wetlands helped the 12 states hit by Hurricane Sandy avoid another $625 million in damage. Without wetlands, the EPA says Boston-area communities along the Charles River would suffer $17 million in annual flood damage.
Globally, wetlands are so productive to, and protective of, such a wide range of wildlife ecosystems, fisheries, and recreational industries that their annual worth in services is estimated to be $26 trillion a year. Yet a third of wetlands have been lost since 1970, according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The United States has lost more than half of the wetlands that existed in colonial times in what would be the contiguous 48 states, according to federal reports and today, according to the EPA, only 5.5 percent of land area is considered a wetland.
Part of the problem for the historic loss, according to a joint report by the Interior Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is: “Since the time of Colonial America, wetlands have been regarded as a hindrance to productive land use. Swamplands, bogs, sloughs and other wetland areas were considered wastelands to be drained, filled or manipulated to ‘produce’ other than natural services or commodities.”
That is a mentality the Trump administration clearly wants to bring back. That would be a tragedy, from flood protection to fish for anglers, from birds in binoculars to drinking water supplies and from farm values to jobs in the restoration economy. In rolling out the rollback, Wheeler wrote that Trump’s Waters of the United States rule would “end years of uncertainty over whether federal jurisdiction begins and ends.” Actually, it would begin years of certain pollution.
Fortunately, the future of the rollback, like many Trump attacks on environmental regulation, is uncertain. In the short term, those who want to fight for clean water have additional time to raise their voice. The government shutdown has thus far prevented the publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register and the start of a required 60-day public comment period. A public meeting in Kansas City, initially scheduled for January 23 has now been postponed.
Should the rule eventually become final, it is certain to face vigorous legal challenges from environmental groups, more progressive states and industries that would fail with fouled water. Ultimately, the rule may come down to the 2020 presidential election and whether Trump and his anti-science agenda stays or goes.
Given how many jobs clean water provides, given how much protection wetlands give coastal and river communities, and given how many Americans are shockingly at risk of drinking water from sources that may not be protected, Waters of the United States is a critical issue we all need to wade in.