Clean Water Rule in Jeopardy

​​When you see a wetland or a creek, do you automatically assume that it falls under Clean Water Act (CWA) protection? That’s a typical assumption, but it is wholly inaccurate. In fact, there are all sorts of exclusions under the CWA. Groundwater is one. Mass amounts of water travel underground constantly. None of it is regulated by the CWA. Runoff from farms is another. Pesticides, herbicides, and manure (among other pollutants) roll off pastures and crop fields, sometimes directly into our drinking water sources, and there is very little we can do about it. Yet another limitation of the CWA is its ambiguity when it comes to defining wetlands and wet-weather streams. Take the US EPA definition of a wetland: “Wetlands are areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.” Any lawyer could have a field day with terms like “sufficient,” “under normal circumstances,” “prevalence,” and “typically.” Indeed, the vagueness within CWA text has been the subject of countless lawsuits and even a few Supreme Court decisions. Over forty years of dispute later, the issue remains unresolved. A US EPA 2015 rulemaking – the “Clean Water Rule” – tried to clarify the language, and it was enacted despite the Farm Bureau’s multi-million-dollar campaign to convince farmers that the Rule would allow the government to regulate a puddle on their farm. That victory might be short-lived. The Trump Administration seems bent on gutting the EPA. In fact, Trump’s proposed budget cuts the agency’s funding by about a third. His first appointment for US EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, was unarguably a walking scandal and was justifiably removed from office. Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, has a chance to correct the disastrous decline of the federal agency, but it does not appear to be an opportunity he will seize. Instead, EPA wants to not only roll back the Clean Water Rule, but also strip protections for a number of categories of waterbodies, notably isolated wetlands and ephemeral (wet-weather) streams. An estimated 50% of current wetlands would be stripped of protection because they do not directly connect to or are not adjacent to a larger waterbody. A heavy stream of water after a major rainfall would not be regulated despite the pollutants it may carry with it. No evaluation. No analysis. Those waterbodies are just categorically excluded. This is one of those times we, as responsible Tennesseans concerned about water quality, need to act. You can do so by emailing [email protected] and telling them to save the 2015 Clean Water Rule or by going to and adding your name to a comment. TCWN thanks you.

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