When the Trump administration recently announced its new, more limited definition of the “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, that fall under the protection of the Clean Water Act, there was much talk of benefits for landowners and developers. Pulling away federal oversight from, for example, a large number of wetlands not tied directly to larger waterbodies, would clear barriers to land use.
And, of course, because the subject is WOTUS, there was a bucket of hyperbole.
“Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government,” Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters on a conference call after the announcement.
It’s the sort of baseless rhetoric we’ve been hearing since the Obama administration announced a much broader definition of protected waters in 2015, including most wetlands and some “ephemeral” streams and water bodies that fill up with heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Large agriculture groups assailed the rules, arguing, incorrectly, that the federal government would regulate every puddle and ditch. President Donald Trump took that mythmaking to the campaign trail, to loud applause.
We’re not going to argue the 2015 definitions were flawless. But in the drive to overturn them, culminating in the Trump administration announcement, we’ve heard precious little discussion of what’s actually needed to make the nation’s waters cleaner. In the grudge match between regulators, farm interest and their political allies, the common good was washed away.
But that’s hardly unusual when it comes to water. We’ve seen here in Iowa how efforts to provide sustainable resources and establish meaningful bench marks for water quality efforts have been stymied by opposition from interests such as the Farm Bureau and political timidity. Voluntary efforts have done far too little to stem the flow of nitrates and phosphorus into Iowa waterways and on to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.
And it’s tough to see how the common good is served by rolling back federal wetland protections. Wetlands, whether they’re connected to larger waterways or not, catch, hold and filter runoff. They’re vital components in a natural system that improves our water quality and helps mitigate the severity of flooding. Loss of wetlands leads to dirtier water and more flooding. We’ve heard about landowners, but what about the rights of property owners hit by flooding?
If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board. Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s “overreach” with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.
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