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. 
In the United States, officials in Michigan will face criminal charges for their alleged role in the lead crisis in the city of Flint. Attorney General Dana Nessel charged former Gov. Rick Snyder with two counts of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Snyder was Michigan’s top elected official during the lead crisis, and he pleaded not guilty. Other current and former officials face more serious charges. Nick Lyon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, as was Eden Wells, the former chief medical executive. Lyon pleaded not guilty to the felony charges, which carry a maximum jail sentence of 15 years and/or a $7,500 fine. In all, nine state and local officials were charged. This is a second attempt at criminal prosecutions tied to the lead crisis. A year and a half ago, state prosecutors dismissed all charges against the officials because of concerns over the manner of the investigation.
In China, dangerous levels of PFAS chemicals were found in the drinking water of over 98 million people living across several cities. That’s according to a new study published in Environmental Sciences Europe. It mapped the available PFAS data from 526 drinking water samples across 66 Chinese cities. PFAS concentrations in more than 20 percent of the cities were above the maximum contaminant level issued by the U.S. state of Vermont. Drinking water in more than 40 percent of the cities exceeded notification levels for PFAS chemicals issued by the state of California. The study found that residents of China’s eastern and southwestern regions were at a relatively higher risk of exposure, and it called for the immediate elimination of these chemicals from affected regions.
In British Columbia, Canadian officials are celebrating a regional wastewater treatment facility for the coastal city of Victoria and its neighbors. The facility began operation in December, and it corrects a longstanding deficiency. For more than 120 years, the city had dumped its raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, an international channel that separates Canada’s Vancouver Island from the U.S. state of Washington. And for decades, British Columbia officials faced local and international pressure to treat the city’s waste before dumping it into the ocean. An official, Colin Plant, told the CBC that the new facility has three phases of treatment, and removes microplastics and most pharmaceuticals from the wastewater. “We are doing what probably should have been happening for a long time before today,” Plant said,  “But we are finally there.”
This week Circle of Blue reports on a last-minute rule change from the Trump administration – one that affects development around waterways. 
On January 4th, the Army Corps of Engineers finalized a rule that further weakens federal protections for the nation’s smallest streams. The revisions are to nationwide permits, which regulate the filling and dredging of waterways. They are among a flurry of environmental deregulatory actions by federal agencies in the final days of the Trump administration, despite the potential for reversal under the Biden administration. In other deregulatory efforts over the last two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restricted the use of scientific studies using confidential health data as a basis for rulemaking; the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service loosened protections for migratory birds; and a federal council allowed mining permits to be fast-tracked under a law that was intended largely for transportation and infrastructure projects.
The nationwide permits affecting streams are part of the Clean Water Act permitting process. They are usually updated every five years. But the Army Corps undertook the rulemaking two years early, after President Trump ordered a reduction in regulatory burdens on energy development.
Laura Ziemer is the senior counsel and water policy adviser for the outdoors group Trout Unlimited. She compared the revisions in the nationwide permits to the Trump administration’s recent efforts to narrow the scope of the Clean Water Act. This past summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps significantly reduced the number of wetlands and streams that are protected by the landmark law, drawing much attention. Ziemer said the recent changes to the nationwide permits, which proceeded with far less publicity, will have a similar effect. She told Circle of Blue “It essentially reduces or shrinks the scope of the Clean Water Act.”
Section 404 of the Clean Water Act authorizes the Army Corps to oversee permitting for actions that fill or dredge waterways. Nationwide permits, intended for “minor” actions, are issued for projects that are expected to do minimal environmental damage to streams and wetlands. Individual permits are used when a project could cause significant environmental damage and they require a deeper analysis in addition to more public consultation.
There are 58 categories of nationwide permits that encompass all manner of development: from boat ramps and irrigation ditches to coal mines and pipelines. If construction damage to a streams stays below the thresholds in the permit, then the project does not require an individual permit, with its in-depth assessment.
The major change in the rules was shifting from a damage threshold based on length to one based on area. Before, projects qualifying for less oversight using a nationwide permit could not destroy more than 300 linear feet of stream. Now for 10 of the nationwide permits the standard is a half-acre. That includes permits for agricultural activities, mining, and commercial and residential developments.
Ziemer and others who submitted comments to the Corps are most concerned about how this new standard for regulation affects small headwater streams that are especially vital for watershed health. Because an area-based threshold combines both the length of a stream and its width, small streams are now more vulnerable to development than they were in the past.
Here’s an example that shows the magnitude of the math from a rule that allows damage to a half-acre of stream bed . If a stream is 6 feet across, it means that nearly 3,500 linear feet of the stream can be damaged within the terms of the permit.  That’s more than 10 times the previous limit and roughly two-thirds of a mile in length.
Trout Unlimited was one of many groups that objected to removal of the 300-foot provision. Other objectors included the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota hunting and fishing group Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters.
The Corps justified replacing the 300-foot provision by saying the new half-acre standard streamlines the permitting process. It also argued that the district engineers who write the permits can request more stringent protections on a case-by-case basis. Ziemer countered that the changes go too far and that district engineers are too overworked for them to take on additional case-by-case requests. According to the Corps, about 95 percent of all dredge-and-fill permits are nationwide permits. Ziemer said there was nothing in the rule and its justification that made the case for the higher damage threshold.
The rule however, may not last long. The incoming Biden administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress have several options for reviewing such last-minute changes. That’s  according to Duncan Greene, a partner at the law firm Van Ness Feldman. Greene said that after taking office, the Biden administration will likely freeze any rules that were finalized but are not yet in effect. Such a hold is standard procedure following a transfer of power. The changes to the nationwide permits go into effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register, and this has not yet happened.
The Congressional Review Act could also come into play. The act allows Congress to review and repeal any rules that were approved near the end of the previous administration. The Trump administration used it to repeal 16 Obama-era rules. Some Democrats have indicated that they plan to proceed with similar reviews once Biden is inaugurated. Others are being more cautious about wielding that power.
Greene added that if the new permitting rule does go into effect, it will probably be challenged in court. The current nationwide permit, dealing with oil pipelines, is the target of a lawsuit that claims the permitting does not protect endangered species.
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 and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.