Keeping our waterways swimmable, fishable, and drinkable seems like an uncontroversial goal—but the Trump administration apparently disagrees. Since assuming control, the administration has made a series of efforts to weaken long-standing protections for America’s waterways. Local environmental groups have grave concerns about the potential effects of these suggested laws in Virginia and across the country.
The Clean Water Act prevents people, farms, and factories from dumping waste into water and using chemicals that could lead to harmful runoff. The most recent piece of Trump legislation, announced in late January, would redefine which types of waterways are protected by the act.
“These rules will reduce the scope of Clean Water Act protection in an unprecedented way, in terms of putting hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in Virginia at risk,” says Jamie Brunkow, senior advocacy manager at the James River Association.
“There are industrial and other interests that stand to profit by a narrower scope of Clean Water Act protections,” says Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Jonathan Gendzier. “That includes big industrial agriculture, homebuilders, and other polluting industries.”
Trump’s rules “reflect a simplistic notion that we should only be regulating navigable waters,” says Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Confining the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction to “navigable waters” means leaving out smaller tributaries that feed in to larger waterways. Vernal pools, intermittent streams, prairie potholes, and other seasonal but critical water features could lose protection. Since all of these waterways are interconnected, pollution anywhere means pollution everywhere. “All the little ravines that have rocks in them and no water until it rains, if you’re allowed to dump whatever you want in there, the second it rains all that is going to come into your streams,” says Bryan Hofmann, deputy director of Friends of the Rappahannock.
The Clean Water Act was initially passed by the Nixon administration, with bipartisan support, in 1972. It’s widely considered an environmental success story, and has directly resulted in improvement of water quality in places like the James River, says Brunkow.
“It’s hard to imagine, but we didn’t have any rules in place that prevented you from directly putting sewage into waterways,” Brunkow says. “The James in Richmond was largely considered an open sewer prior to the Clean Water Act.”
This rollback is bad news for people and animals alike. Brook trout, endangered Shenandoah salamanders, oysters, otters, blue crabs, bald eagles and even dolphins all rely on the Rappahannock system, says Hofmann, and any pollution wreaks havoc on those fragile systems. Meanwhile, “In Charlottesville, most of the public drinking supply comes from surface water, which runs off the land,” Miller says.
Repealing the federal rules means more responsibility falls to states. Virginia has decent protections in place, compared to neighboring states like West Virginia or Pennsylvania, says Hofmann, but the rollback means fewer staff and a decreased budget.
The rule change “puts an additional strain on our state agencies,” Brunkow says. “It’s really a devastating blow to have lost that national standard.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center has been fighting against Trump water deregulation since the administration took office, says Gendzier. They plan to challenge this new rule as well, and anticipate a months-long legal battle.
“Having a big power plant go through and discharge whatever they want into the water, farms having their cattle sitting there all day long and defecating into the stream—” Hofmann says, “The Clean Water Act prevents those huge bad things from happening.”