Correcting the Record: Media Erroneously Claims EPA and Army Jeopardize Wetlands & Stream Protection
WASHINGTON (Jan. 23, 2020) — According to multiple media reports, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which delivers a new, clear definition for “waters of the United States,” issued today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (Army) erodes protection for “millions of miles of streams” and wetlands. While this conveniently fits the narrative they are trying to push, it runs contrary to the facts. There’s even a fact sheet easily and publicly accessible online spelling this out.
In the meantime, here’s what people are actually saying about the rule: https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/what-they-are-saying-epa-and-army-deliver-president-trumps-promise-issue-navigable
As both EPA and Army have belabored in press releases and press calls: “[T]here are no data or tools that can accurately map or quantify the scope of “waters of the United States.” This is the case today, and it was the case in 2014 when the Obama Administration issued its blog titled ‘Mapping the Truth.’ Therefore, any assertions attempting to quantify changes in the scope of waters based on these data sets are far too inaccurate and speculative to be meaningful. While this Administration agrees that the current data and tools are insufficient, we are committed to supporting the development and improvement of the technology needed to map the nation’s aquatic resources.”
As discussed on a press call today, a senior EPA official stressed this point again. Here's an example of why the maps that people seem to think show the clear status of jurisdictional waters in this country cannot be used. The National Hydrography Dataset, that the U.S. Geological Survey over at the U.S. Department of the Interior uses, it's a nice tool. It has fairly high resolution and can show surface water features. The challenge is that for most parts of the country that map does not tell the difference between ephemeral and intermittent waters, other than in very limited portions of the country. Our rule depends on the difference between intermittent and ephemeral waters, but that tool does not see the difference and does not map the difference. Similarly, the National Wetlands Inventory, which is the other major tool that people have been using, does not map wetlands that match the ‘wetlands’ definition under any prior version of the [WOTUS] rule. And it also has what are called errors of omission and commission. In other words, it doesn’t map wetlands that are there, and it maps wetlands that are no longer there. Most importantly, it doesn't map the jurisdictional waters. If you use those tools together, each one has errors, and so if you use them together to try to overlay the wetlands and the flowing waters, you effectively have what's called propagation of error. It’s an inherently unreliable system, and so we do not use it.
Let’s take a look at some of the offenders:
Politico: “The Trump administration Thursday signed its long-promised regulation to remove millions of miles of streams and roughly half the country’s wetlands from federal protection, the largest rollback of the Clean Water Act since the modern law was passed in 1972… Half the country's wetlands could lose protection… The new rule lifts federal protections for roughly half of the country's wetlands, according to the agency's own internal estimates.”
E&E News: “A final rule unveiled by the Trump administration today eliminates Clean Water Act protections for the majority of the nation's wetlands and more than 18% of streams.”
Los Angeles Times: “Federal data suggest 81% of streams in the Southwest would lose long-held protections, including tributaries to major waterways that millions of people rely on for drinking water.”
The Guardian: “About 60% of streams in the US are dry for part of the year but then connect to large rivers following rainfall. Wetlands not situated next to large rivers will also be excluded from protections. People living in the western US are set to be particularly affected by the new rule, with ephemeral streams making up around 89% of Nevada’s stream miles and 94% of Arizona’s, for example.”
The Navigable Waters Protection Rule ends decades of uncertainty over where federal jurisdiction begins and ends. For the first time, EPA and the Army are recognizing the difference between federally protected wetlands and state protected wetlands. It adheres to the statutory limits of the agencies’ authority. 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.
The revised definition identifies four clear categories of waters that are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act: the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters, like the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River; perennial and intermittent tributaries, such as College Creek, which flows to the James River near Williamsburg, Virginia; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments, such as Children’s Lake in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania; and wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters.
These four categories protect the nation’s navigable waters and the core tributary systems that flow into those waters.
This final action also details what waters are not subject to federal control, including features that only contain water in direct response to rainfall; groundwater; many ditches, including most farm and roadside ditches; prior converted cropland; farm and stock watering ponds; and waste treatment systems.