This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
A year-long investigation by the French media organization Disclose uncovered a number of environmental and public health concerns at the country’s largest dairy producer, Lactalis. Among the findings of the report was evidence of intense, widespread environmental pollution, including the dumping of industrial waste into nearby rivers. The report found that in the last decade, 38 Lactalis plants have broken environmental laws. Violations include the deliberate pollution of watercourses as well as negligence that destroyed plants and wildlife. Geoffrey Livolsi, co-editor-in-chief of Disclose, told the Guardian that the findings point to what he called “a huge environmental pollution scandal.” The Guardian said that the report has renewed pressure for tightening existing environmental regulations in France and as well as for stronger environmental protections.
In science news, researchers from a university in the Netherlands are investigating a curious phenomenon that has puzzled scientists: why some glaciers in southern Asia are stable or growing. Most everywhere else, glaciers are shrinking due to rising temperatures. But ice fields in the Kunlun Shan and Karakoram mountain ranges do not appear to be affected. These ranges span parts of China, India, and Pakistan. The research team from Utrecht University found that glaciers in that region are less sensitive to temperature changes. But that’s only part of the explanation. A significant factor is irrigation. Moisture that evaporates from farm fields in western China and elsewhere in the region has boosted snowfall and added mass to the glaciers. Though the glaciers are stable, the water source that is feeding them is not. Much of the region’s irrigation water comes from groundwater, which is being depleted. The study authors warn that once groundwater irrigation declines, the glaciers may decline as well. They say it is a complex problem of water availability.
In the U.S. state of Georgia, the Twin Pine Minerals mining company is proceeding with plans to dig near the Okefenokee Swamp wildlife refuge – that’s according to the Associated Press. The Army Corps of Engineers said that the project does not require a federal permit because the wetlands are no longer protected under the Clean Water Act. It is an example of how the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations is affecting land use and waterways. Conservation groups vehemently oppose the project, which they say could cause irreversible damage to the habitats of several protected species. The land affected by the project is half the size of what the original proposal called for and it still needs state permits from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.
This week Circle of Blue assesses how the first term of the Trump administration has affected water in the United States.
In the closing minutes of this election’s first presidential debate, the line of questioning turned, surprisingly, to climate change. The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, had not listed climate as one of the topics he planned to bring up. But then, nearly seventy-five minutes into the event, he did.
The fires burning in the American West were the prompt.
Turning to the president, Wallace asked Trump what he believed about climate science and what he would do in the next four years to confront carbon pollution. Trump, at first, demurred. “I want crystal clean water and air,” Trump responded. Then he pivoted to a familiar talking point: railing against cluttered forests as the cause of wildfires in California and other western states.
The initial line — the desire for crystal clean water — is one that the president repeats frequently, even dating to his 2016 presidential campaign. Immaculate water, he has also said. Clear water. Beautiful water. But a number of water advocates and analysts say the focus on appearances is superficial. They say that during its first term, the Trump administration has pursued revisions to environmental rules that will harm the nation’s waters.
Bob Irvin is president and chief executive of the conservation group American Rivers. He told Circle of Blue “President Trump loves to say that he wants crystal clear water. But his administration has adopted policies that will result in dirtier water across the country.”
Irvin, an environmental lawyer by training, has worked in Washington D.C. for more than three decades. He started out as a trial attorney in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. He was senior counsel for fish and wildlife for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He worked for conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Federation. His career has spanned Republican and Democratic administrations, and in the past, he said, there was always at least some common ground on environmental priorities.
But, not during the Trump administration. Irvin could not name any administration policy that was beneficial for waterways, saying “It is stunning for me to say that.”
Others interviewed for this story were not as absolute, but they echoed, to varying degrees, Irvin’s thoughts, which he described in this way: “This administration has been unrelentingly hostile to the idea of conservation and environmental protection, and has been single-minded in its determination to undermine that protection.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was active in the administration’s plan to weaken federal authority and reliquish oversight to the states. First under Scott Pruitt and now led by Andrew Wheeler, who was a lobbyist for fossil fuel industries he now regulates. Like his boss, Wheeler made public statements that lifted water to a place of prominence. At a World Water Day event at the Wilson Center last year, Wheeler said “My frustration with the current dialogue around environmental issues is that water issues often take a backseat. It’s time to change that.”
Many critics and analysts say that the administration did not change that. They argue that regulatory rollbacks at the EPA as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Department of Energy leave the country’s waters more vulnerable to pollution and development. The loss of protections at the federal level puts more pressure on individual states to be the backstop.
Eric Schaeffer is executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. He says that the assumption that states are going to come in and fill the gap is not warranted because states are suffering budget cuts to their environmental units. Schaeffer was the director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement from 1997 to 2002. His group released a study showing that between 2000 and 2018, 31 states reduced funding for state pollution control agencies. As he put it, “When EPA leaves the field, it leaves a lot of work undone.”
The EPA has left the field or stepped back in many places. The administration gave coal power plants more time to close unlined waste pits and it relaxed standards for pollutants in power plant wastewater that is discharged to rivers and lakes. It narrowed the scope of state reviews of pollution impacts under the Clean Water Act. It withdrew a proposal that would have required mining companies to provide more financial assurance that they could remediate future water contamination. Reversing an Obama-era decision, it decided not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. And draft rules for lead in drinking water appear to allow utilities to take longer to replace lead service lines.
The Bureau of Reclamation, meanwhile, has sought to increase the height of Shasta Dam over the objections of the state of California and the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which do not want higher waters to submerge salmon habitat and cultural sites along the McCloud River. The Bureau is also carrying out an executive order to maximize water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.
Laura Ziemer is the senior counsel and water policy advisor for Trout Unlimited. She said that the Bureau of Reclamation has many opportunities to invest in drought and climate preparedness in the western states through natural water storage and irrigation efficiency. But projects like the Shasta Dam raise miss the mark, according to Ziemer. In her words, the Trump administration is “looking in the rearview mirror and investing in water solutions from the past that have already proven to be unsustainable and not cost effective.”
Of all these deregulatory actions, one stood out in the worst way. Most people interviewed for this story singled out the administration’s changes to the Clean Water Act as the most damaging policy for water. The changes in the scope of the Clean Water Act redefine what counts as a water of the United States, also known as WOTUS.
Written by the EPA and Army Corps, the new WOTUS definition reduces federal oversight for many seasonal streams, small waterways and wetlands. Agency staff used hydrological data to calculate that the new rule would remove protection from as many as half of the nation’s wetlands and 18 percent of streams. That means developers will no longer have to seek permits to fill in these newly unprotected wetlands and stream segments. It also means lifting requirements to minimize damage and to offset unavoidable impacts by restoring wetlands elsewhere. Ziemer noted that western rivers are particularly vulnerable to the removal of protections for ephemeral streams. She said that destroying smaller streams will reduce the region’s resilience to floods and droughts.
The EPA press office declined requests from Circle of Blue for interviews with both Wheeler and David Ross, the head of the Office of Water. It is the agency’s position that no existing map accurately shows the boundaries of federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. Several federal agencies are now working to publish such guidance.
And the effect of this overhaul? In most cases, it is too early to say. Narrowing the scope of the Clean Water Act took effect this June for every state but Colorado. Schaeffer said “It takes a while between the time you push the lever on a new policy or decision and the time the impacts show up in water quality.”
The administration touts steps it has taken to secure the nation’s water. There is a national plan to coordinate the reuse of water, and orders to speed up reviews and permitting of things like the federal management plan for dams on the Columbia River. The administration also points to a water “subcabinet” of department heads who will coordinate policy, and a determination that it will regulate two toxic PFAS substances in drinking water. FEMA, to the pleasure of green groups, also quietly advanced new guidance allowing greater use of federal flood prevention funds for natural infrastructure such as wetlands.
In general, the administration’s rules have tipped the balance of power to users of water: mining companies, energy developers, farmers, homebuilders. Even as it moves to regulate two PFAS substances in drinking water, the EPA is allowing the chemical industry to produce and sell new PFAS substances.
It’s not just the policies that have drawn ire. The Trump administration has sought to transform the process by which those decisions are made: by sidelining scientific evidence and shrinking the process for environmental review.
The legacy of these four years is still being written. The administration’s policy changes have fared poorly in court. Many have been overturned because of procedural missteps and hastily written justifications. Other rules, like the definition of waters of the United States, are in the early stages of litigation. And this election will also determine whether this administration has another four years to pursue its aims.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.