By Ian Cooke, Executive Director – March 10, 2017
What was way more popular than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016? Clean water.
A bipartisan coalition of 56% of Americans worry a “great deal” about the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs. In fact, clean water crushed candidates of both major political parties by a margin of about 10%, and we’re pretty sure that margin is even wider than it appears, because we’re confident a significant fraction of those who voted for Clinton or Trump didn’t like their candidate a “great deal.”
Whatever the public was voting for last November, it wasn’t voting in favor of more water pollution, but as the Trump Administration and the new Congress have begun turning their attention to environmental issues in recent days, the results so far are disconcerting for anyone who cares about the health of local wetlands and water resources.
President Trump signed an executive order on February 28 directing his agencies to begin repealing the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Rule. He claimed, without evidence, that the rule, which has yet to take effect because of litigation, has caused the loss of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs.
The Clean Water Rule, finalized by the Obama Administration in 2015, sought to clarify what streams and wetlands are protected under the Federal Clean Water Act. The goal was to ensure that discharges to headwater areas and wetlands don’t flow downstream to impact larger waterways and the surface drinking water supplies that serve one third of all Americans.
Here in the Neponset Watershed many wetlands are protected by state wetlands protection laws in addition to the Federal Clean Water Act, but weakening of the Clean Water Rule or a further rollback of the existing requirements, would still impact so called “isolated wetlands” which are not protected under state law. Just as importantly, defining some waterways as non-jurisdictional could affect whether some construction sites, industrial properties, and stormwater systems are required to clean up pollutants.
The saving grace with the proposed changes is that revising the rule will take several years and involve considerable opportunity for public comment. NepRWA expects to be actively involved in that process and others including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy have pledged to oppose the move in court.
Federal Clean Water Spending to be Slashed
Equally concerning has been early indications from the new Administration that their intention is significantly de-fund the US EPA, which has clean water as one of its primary jobs. While the plans are preliminary, they seem to include everything from scaling back environmental enforcement and scientific research, and reducing grant and loan programs that help municipalities repair sewer, drinking water, and stormwater systems.
Numerous sources including Fox News are reporting that the Administration is planning to cut EPA’s overall budget 25%, eliminate 3,000 staff positions, and cut grant funding programs by 30%.
In addition to crippling the EPA’s ability to implement its own Clean Water Act permitting and enforcement responsibilities, cuts of this magnitude would have a cascading effect on the work of our state environmental agencies which depend heavily on funding from EPA for their own water protection work.
EPA clean water grants have played an important role here in the Neponset Valley. NepRWA has helped Milton, Stoughton, Canton, Sharon, Dedham, Walpole, Medfield and Westwood evaluate or install retrofits to reduce stormwater pollution using EPA funds under the so called Section 319 and Section 604b grants.
Also funded in large part by EPA are the Commonwealth’s revolving loan funds for sewer and drinking water projects, which have financed critical municipal infrastructure upgrades for every single one of the 14 communities in the Neponset Watershed. This includes financing some $240 million in water infrastructure investments across the state in FY 2016 alone.
Indirect Financial Impacts Pile On
Adding to the budget difficulties, other federal initiatives completely unrelated to the environment are likely to put significant pressure on the State budget. This will make it much more difficult for Governor Baker to honor his (as yet unfulfilled) pledge to restore past cuts to our dwindling state parks and environmental agencies, and raising the prospect of further reductions in state environmental enforcement even as federal enforcement may be going by the wayside.
Long Term Climate Opportunity Costs
The most well defined action by the new Administration is its effort to roll back and de-fund international and domestic efforts to reduce the emissions that are driving global climate change. Newly appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s comments this week downplaying the role of greenhouse gas emissions, highlights the Trump Administration’s ongoing efforts to refute and de-fund the basic scientific research needed to understand the human and economic impacts of climate change.
While these are global rather than watershed-based challenges, if unaddressed, they will have a profound impact on the health of the Neponset River, not to mention the safety and economic viability of our communities in coming decades.
NepRWA Republicans and Trump Voters: Please Speak Up for the Environment
Historically protection of our natural resources has not been a partisan political issue, particularly at the local level. This is reflected in the fact that the party affiliation of NepRWA members roughly tracks the number of registered Democrats and Republicans in the state as a whole. If we hope to succeed in protecting and restoring the Neponset, we need to remind our political leaders in Washington about the strong traditions around resource stewardship and outdoor recreation in both our major political parties.
We urge all our members, and especially our Republican members and others who voted for President Trump, to let the new Administration and your federal legislators know, that whatever your views on the many issues facing our country, you are part of the 56% who worry “a great deal” about healthy rivers.