Trump’s New ‘National Waters Protection Rule’ May Not Be What It Seems

By Riley Prillwitz

President Donald Trump has revised a rule regarding the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which took  effect Jan. 23. 

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authored a news release in which they confirmed Region 8 political figures U.S. Rep. Douglas Lamborn and Colorado Springs’ Mayor John Suthers, along with several military personnel, followed through with Trump’s revision of the Navigable Waters Protection rule. 

According to the release, the officials present “celebrated the Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” which suggests that this was a positive step for the U.S. 

The revised WOTUS definition identifies four water categories that fall under federal regulation: “the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.”

Twelve categories of water feature are no longer considered WOTUS and therefore cannot be protected by federal WOTUS requirements. These include ephemeral features, which only contain water directly in response to a rainfall event; “groundwater; many ditches; prior converted cropland; and waste treatment systems.” 

Another important distinction made by the revision defines “adjacent wetlands” as “wetlands that are meaningfully connected to other jurisdictional waters, for example, by directly abutting or having regular surface water communication with jurisdictional waters.”

The EPA claims that the new rule has cleared up any confusion over state and national protected lands. “It also ensures that America’s water protections — among the best in the world — remain strong, while giving our states and tribes the certainty to manage their waters in ways that best protect their natural resources and local economies,” said EPA Region 3 Administrator Cosmo Servidio in a parallel news release from Pittsburgh.

Though the EPA mentions environmental protection, the new rule may not provide as much protection as it alleges. 

“I think that there’s general agreement by many on both sides of the debate that this new interpretation will limit the authority of the federal government to apply environmental protections to certain classes of water bodies, including many wetlands,” said Environmental Studies professor Mike Angstadt.

CC Sustainability Director Ian Johnson also disagrees with the EPA statement. “This revision is par for the course for an administration that has made its intent clear: weakening or eliminating environmental protections to allow for the short-term profits of polluting industries is the clear intention of this rollback of protections for U.S. waters.”

The page-long Region 8 news release maintains a positive outlook on suggested outcomes of the new WOTUS law. 

EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin said that “This rule will provide much needed consistency to the farmers, businesses and landowners in Region 8’s Rocky Mountain and Plains states and tribes as we apply Clean Water Act protections to navigable waters and associated tributaries, lakes, ponds and wetlands.” 

Yet Johnson states the exact opposite. “This fully and completely ignores any hydrologic connection between surface and ground waters, wetlands, lakes, and rivers.”

While the EPA has positively reflected and reported on the new law, many truths were left unaddressed by the announcement. 

Angstadt believes this could even negatively affect the economy. “While certain sectors of the economy may applaud this regulatory change in the present, I think it provides a textbook example of how our contemporary approach to many important environmental issues relies heavily on the executive branch, where priorities can wax and wane as new administrations come to office.”

“This is yet another handout to big polluters, at the expense of the rest of the citizens,” said Johnson. “[This] will have negative impacts on future economies as supplies of clean water will continue to decrease and cleanup efforts become more and more necessary.”

Trump’s WOTUS law promises clarity, protection, and economic growth. Yet many credible opinions disagree and believe this isn’t a particularly positive step for our environment and our country. 

Angstadt sums up the general implications in a simple sentence: “I think that this lack of continuity can erode the predictability that businesses seek and frustrate efforts to generate durable, bipartisan environmental protections.”
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