Even if you typically keep up to date on climate news, all the talk of "WOTUS" this week might have you flummoxed.
And we can't blame you. WOTUS – which stands for "Waters of the U.S." – isn't the most intuitive acronym, and it's a part of a water protection act (the Clean Water Act) that, let's be honest, isn't exactly riveting reading.
But the Trump Administration's plan to define what WOTUS means could have a huge effect on the environment and the safety of the water in your community. Read on for everything you need to know about WOTUS, The Clean Water Act, and the Trump Administration's plan to change how the federal government polices water pollution.
First, Let's Catch Up on the Clean Water Act
The Clean Water Act has a long history in the States. It was first signed in 1948 and expanded in the early 1970s to address rampant water pollution (to give you an idea of how bad the problem was, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire multiple times from all the pollution).
The Clean Water Act set out a few basic guidelines to help ensure that the public could access clean, safe water. It set limits on the amount of pollution that could be added to the water supply, and set water quality standards that businesses and other organizations had to adhere to. Not surprisingly, it also made it illegal to just dump pollution into the water, and helped fund sewage treatment plants to keep water safer.
Sounds great, right? Well, yes. But there was also an issue: the Clean Water Act did not specifically define which bodies of water are protected by it (or to put it another way, where the clean water laws actually apply). So in 2015, the Obama Administration defined what "Waters of the U.S.", or WOTUS, actually meant. This made it clear exactly which bodies of water are protected makes it easier for the EPA to step in and actually enforce clean water laws.
Got It? Now Here's The Trump Administration's Twist
Defining which bodies of water are protected by federal law has been a hot button issue for decades. Think about it. If you don't like part of the Clean Water Act, you have two options: either lobby for the law itself to change, or ask them to scale back the amount of water protected under the act. If you choose the second option, the Clean Water Act is still there – it will just apply to fewer bodies of water.
The second option is exactly what the Trump Administration plans to do. They're unveiling a new and narrower definition of WOTUS. Under the new definitions, intermittent streams – ones that typically only flow after snow melt or rain – will no longer be protected by the Clean Water Act. And certain wetlands will no longer be protected, unless they have an above-ground connection to another body of water.
Why Are They Making the Changes?
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler cited business interests as the reason for the change. Check out this quote, published in Scientific American: "Our new, more precise definition means that hardworking Americans will spend less time determining whether they need a federal permit and more time upgrading aging infrastructure, building homes, creating jobs and growing crops to feed our families."
But environmental experts aren't happy with the change. The Center for Biological Diversity points out that more than 75 endangered species will face an even higher risk of extinction.
“The Trump administration’s radical proposal would destroy millions of acres of wetlands, pushing imperiled species like steelhead trout closer to extinction," said Brett Hartl, an expert at the Center said in a press release. “This sickening gift to polluters will result in more dangerous toxic pollution dumped into waterways across a vast stretch of America."
So What Happens Now?
The Trump Administration's proposal is just that – a proposal. And changing the rule could take years. As Vox points out, the EPA will need to make scientific and legal arguments to support their points, ask the public for their opinions, and argue their position in court.
So it will be a lengthy process for the EPA to undo the Obama-era protections. But it's still worth being concerned. The EPA are the environmental "policemen." And if they're arguing they should police water pollution less, there's a chance they won't enforce Clean Water Laws stringently – after all, why strictly enforce the exact rules you're arguing against?
What's more, the redefinition of WOTUS is just the latest in the Trump Administration's environmental changes. The EPA has also planned to roll back protections on the Clean Power Plan – a move that could kill up to 1,400 Americans a year. And the EPA is also attempting to scale back its enforcement of some aspects of the Clean Air Act.
The bottom line? If you think the government should be doing more to combat pollution and climate change – not less – you need to make your voice heard. Use our simple guide to reach out to your representatives about climate change and do your part to protect the water in your community.
- EPA: Summary of the Clean Water Act
- EPA: Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rulemaking
- E&E News: Judge shifts legal brawl, revives WOTUS in 26 states
- Scientific American: Trump Administration Redefines “Waters of the U.S.”
- Center for Biological Diversity: Trump Administration to Slash Clean Water Act Protections for Rivers, Streams, Wetlands
About the Author
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.