Raw Politics Once Again Win Over Science and Evidence

If science- and evidence-based policymaking were an interest group by itself, it would have the least to show for itself in the current Trump administration. From climate change to the opioid crisis to the arrival of migrants at the border, science and evidence have given way to hysteria, false narratives, cronyism and old-school corruption.

It was no different when the Environmental Protection Agency recently released the draft of the Waters of the United States rule. The Trump administration’s publication of the draft WOTUS rule recently culminates a long, but expected journey that sought to stop and later upend the original WOTUS (or the Clean Water Rule) finalized by the Obama administration.

The need for the Clean Water Rule was prompted by a series of Supreme Court rulings that encouraged the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to clarify the extent of “federal waters.” After a few haphazard attempts by the Bush administration, it was the Obama administration that took a methodical approach to the issue by conducting peer-reviewed studies, inter-agency reviews and extensive analyses to arrive at the final rule.

Although a change in party and ideology in the White House typically brings a new set of policy goals, including annulment of older policies, the draft WOTUS rule issued by the EPA recently not only rescinds several changes proposed by the Obama administration, but significantly weakens the Clean Water Act. Despite Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s assertion that farmers will be able to stand on their farm and identify the extent of federal waters, hydrologists believe that it will be extremely difficult to distinguish ephemeral and seasonal streams from yearlong rivers without the help of skilled experts and engineering consultants.

In May 2015, after months of deliberations and expert input, including an unprecedented 200-day comment period, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers announced the publication of the Clean Water Rule to bring clarity to the Clean Water Act, which guides water quality in the nation’s streams and rivers. The rule was nearly doomed from the start, even before its publication in the Federal Register.

Within three months of the publication of the draft rule in April 2014, House Republicans introduced H.R. 5078, the Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act of 2014, that sought to prevent the EPA and Army Corps from “developing, finalizing, adopting, implementing, applying, administering, or enforcing” the rule. By the summer, the Clean Water Rule, which had not been finalized yet, became a major campaign issue in the 2014 midterms, especially in rural districts, where candidates vowed to stop the rule from being implemented. H.R. 5078 passed in September 2014 with near-unanimous support from Republicans and a few dozen Democrats. In addition to vulnerable Democrats representing rural, agrarian districts, the bill strangely attracted the support of more liberal members. The bill was not taken up in the Senate, and died at the end of the 113th Congress.

Once finalized, the Clean Water Rule was set to enter into effect in August 2015. The rule was challenged in federal courts, and its implementation was blocked minutes before it was set to go into effect. Ever since the Trump administration took office, repealing the Clean Water Rule has been a top priority at the EPA, even more than addressing public health crises caused by water contamination from lead and perfluorinated compounds (collectively called PFAS). During the last two years, the president’s allies in Congress tried to insert riders preventing the EPA administrator from using any appropriated funds from implementing the Clean Water Rule, but each time those riders failed to make it to the final legislative text.

We’re losing wetlands at an alarming rate across the country to other land uses, including intensively managed forests, farmland, housing development and coastal erosion. Wetlands are communities’ lungs — they purify the water, reduce flooding, enrich wildlife habitat and improve the quality of living.

Their loss is already resulting in devastation in flood-prone communities. The new WOTUS rule will strip protections afforded to wetlands across the country, resulting in poor agricultural management practices and allowing developers to build new construction and industries to discharge pollutants without running afoul of the Clean Water Act.

Instead of solely relying on treatment at their facilities, several water utilities rely on natural infrastructure such as wetlands and seasonal ditches to treat their drinking water. Combined with agricultural conservation techniques, these natural methods can address water quality problems caused by excess nitrates and phosphorus at the source at much cheaper costs. Preliminary results from an ongoing study led by the authors, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, suggest that these techniques are resulting in improved water quality and lower incidences of flooding.

The new WOTUS rule is a significant loss for clean water and the environment, which has been par for the course in this administration. But let this not dull the impact of the new WOTUS rule, nor the fact that moneyed interests are superseding the public interest and scientific evidence, even when life’s basic necessities are involved.


Dr. Sridhar Vedachalam is director of the Safe Drinking Water Program, and Eric Heath is senior policy counsel at the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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