Western Resource Advocates today released the following statement in response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final rule changing the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. The new definition, released by the administration just before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, disregards science and significantly weakens protections for thousands of miles of waterways and millions of acres of wetlands across the West.
“As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, we are more aware than ever before of the importance of having clean and safe water – yet the EPA has decided to move forward with this assault on clean water and rivers, streams, and wetlands,” said Joro Walker, Western Resource Advocates’ general counsel. “The EPA’s new WOTUS definition threatens people, communities, fish, and wildlife across our region, and is out of step with the goals of the Clean Water Act to keep our country’s waters clean and protect our nation’s vanishing wetlands. Western state leaders are currently demonstrating tremendous leadership and juggling many competing priorities. Now they have one more concern, and we have one more ask – that they come together to protect our rivers, our neighborhoods, and our well-being.”
The new WOTUS definition hits the arid West particularly hard by narrowing dramatically which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. The rule ends protections for rivers and streams that flow after rain or as snow melts, as well as most wetlands. In the West, huge areas are drained by these “ephemeral” streams. These streams are also tributaries to rivers that provide drinking water and irrigation for millions of people across the region. For example, at least one significant study estimated that 81 percent of waterways in the Southwest flow seasonally. In Colorado and Utah alone, the EPA estimates that over 5 million people receive drinking water from public systems that rely at least in part on intermittent, ephemeral, or headwater streams. Wetlands that will no longer be covered by the Act are vital to protect and improve water quality, prevent erosion, help reduce flooding, and provide essential wildlife and fish habitat. The administration’s rule puts at risk these waterways and the communities that rely upon them.
Additionally, the new rule places the burden of protecting these waters exclusively on the states without providing them with the resources and the time to develop programs to do so.