2017 Archives

Trump’s Order May Foul U.S. Drinking Water Supply

Narrowing the Clean Water Rule could increase pollution in critical waters


The following is from the March 10, 2017, edition of Scientific American. Law Professor Jeffrey Gaba, who specializes in environmental law, provided expertise for this story.

March 14, 2017

By Annie Sneed

Pres. Donald Trump insists he wants clean water. In a speech to Congress last week, he vowed to “promote clean air and clean water.” And in an interview with The New York Times last November, he said, “Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important.” Ironically, though, the president just signed an executive order that could pollute many Americans’ drinking water sources.

On February 28, Trump ordered a review of the Clean Water Rule, with the aim of rolling it back.  . . . 

According to the EPA, about two thirds of U.S. stream miles only run seasonally or after rainstorms. The EPA estimates that one in three Americans — about 117 million people — draw all or some of their water from public drinking water systems that depend at least partly on the streams which the Clean Water Rule would protect.

Jeffrey Gaba, professor of health law at Southern Methodist University, notes there is a chance the future rule might still require polluters to get a permit if they want to dump upstream of officially protected waters, because the contaminants ultimately flow into those waters. But James Salzman (a professor of environmental law at UCLA) is skeptical. “The point of [Trump’s] executive order is to exclude as much as possible,” he wrote to Scientific American in an e-mail.

If these intermittent and ephemeral streams are not covered, then the wetlands and other water bodies near them may not be either. Any wetlands that do not have a visible connection to waters the federal government has traditionally regulated, like a river or large stream, would likely lose protection, according to Gaba.

These wetlands do an excellent job filtering out pollutants; for example, bacteria in wetlands remove nutrients like nitrates from agricultural fertilizer runoff, which prevents the contaminant from moving downstream. If Trump’s rule no longer covers them, they could be polluted or dredged and destroyed. “A lot of wetlands could be lost,” Gaba says.

Read the full story.