President Trump's newest executive order could rewrite a powerful law that protects drinking water for 117 million people. The mandate aims to grossly reduce how, and how much, of our waterways the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is allowed to regulate.
True to form, Trump promised his order would restore economic growth, without explaining how that's going to work. In a grand display of his intent, he invited the American Farm Bureau Federation, a conservative industry lobbying group, to the signing ceremony in the Oval Office on Tuesday. "All of America thanks you," one attendee said. "This is putting America back to work," commented another.
What's certain is that without these federal protections, companies will find it easy to pollute waterways that supply clean water for humans, and key habitat for wildlife. But little evidence exists to suggest this will lead to economic growth or new jobs.
Meanwhile, clean water does mean more jobs and money. The economic benefits of outdoor recreation are especially significant in rural areas, where small businesses can rely solely on the revenue generated by tourism. More than 40 million Americans contribute to this valuable economy each year.
"The $646-billion outdoor recreation economy—plus the 6 million American jobs this economy supports—depends on clean water… there's a very clear connection between regulatory uncertainty and risks for wildlife populations, sportsmen's access, and outdoor recreation businesses," Christy Plumer, chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a bipartisan group that represents sportsmen, told me.
Of course, outdoor recreation is dwarfed by the influence of farming and fossil fuel interests. Last year, agribusiness groups spent $126,242,202 on lobbying, while oil and gas spent $117,516,956, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Not to mention, as Oklahoma attorney general, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt spent years fighting to repeal WOTUS, and repeatedly sided with corporations over citizens when it came to protecting local waterways.
"It is encouraging to see the administration prioritize actions that balance the importance of environmental protections with both states' authority and the regulatory certainty that is required to support a thriving economy," Hal Quinn, CEO of the National Mining Association, a mining trade association that has heavily lobbied against the Clean Water Act, told me.
At the signing ceremony yesterday, Trump echoed these sentiments. But a fact-check of his statements reveals another truth. For starters, Trump said the "EPA's regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands."
Yet, nothing suggests the Clean Water Act is harmful to jobs. In fact, hundreds of small business-owners wrote to President Obama in 2014, urging him to move forward with the rule. Trump also alleged that WOTUS targets "small farmers and small businesses as if they were a major industrial polluter," when farmers actually receive multiple exemptions under the regulation.
"Most Americans are not going to be helped by this action."
WOTUS was finalized in 2015 to clarify which bodies of water the Clean Water Act—a suite of laws—can regulate, but is still under judicial review. Each state within the continental US shares a waterway with another state, so it was important for lawmakers to understand how these ecosystems are interrelated.
Imagining what toxic streams and rivers might look like isn't difficult. In 1952, industrial waste in Ohio's Cuyahoga River famously caught fire near Cleveland. During the 1960s, pollution in Lake Erie, which supplies drinking water to 11 million people today, was so bad that many declared it "dead." And when the Mississippi River flooded with 3.5 million gallons of oil in 1962 and 1963, no immediate protocols existed for cleaning it up.
While modern water protections aren't perfect, most environmentalists would argue they're a big improvement over decades past. And as a result of that, outdoor recreationists spend over $86 billion on water sports each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. More than 1.5 million jobs are supported by America's waterways, generating $104 billion in annual income.
Yet, for more than a decade, farming and fossil fuel groups have lobbied against WOTUS, arguing that it overreaches, and regulates "nearly every piece of land that touches a pothole, ditch, or puddle," according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly called the rule unconstitutional. Last year, the Senate failed to overturn President Obama's vetoing of a decision to repeal WOTUS after Congress undid the measure using the Congressional Review Act.
The ambiguous definition of "waters of the United States" has always been a point of contention for conservatives. Its more recent iteration includes non-permanent and isolated waterways, such as ponds or streams that don't flow annually. To put that in perspective, about 60 percent of streams in the lower 48 states aren't active year-round.
Detractors of WOTUS almost always cite a 2006 Supreme Court ruling on its jurisdiction, for which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: WOTUS should be restricted to "only relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water…The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall."
In his executive order, Trump commands Pruitt and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, to "consider interpreting" Scalia's definition of WOTUS in future rulemaking. It's still unclear whether enforcing this alternate interpretation is even legal. A few of the environmental groups I spoke to said they will likely sue over the issue.
"Most Americans are not going to be helped by this action," Jon Devine, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, a public lands conservation group, told me. "Companies who discharge pollution into our nation's waterways would prefer not to incur pollution control costs, so [the executive order] is in their economic interest."
But the road to approval will be a slow one for Trump's proposed changes. Some experts believe it will take at least a year before anything can be rewritten. Americans will get the chance to comment on the draft, and may very well decimate the new rule. A survey found that 80 percent of small business owners supported WOTUS when it was proposed.
"Removing millions of acres from the scope of Clean Water Act is not going to create a lot of jobs," said Jan Goldman-Carter, director of wetlands and water resources at the National Wildlife Federation.
"We had really strong economies through the 80s and 90s with a much stronger and broader Clean Water Act than what we've had in the last 10 years. A lot of businesses thrive and depend on it."