FGCU wetlands professor blasts Trump water rules, calls for citizen action

09-27-18 Big CypressA view of the Everglades.                             (Photo: Big Cypress National Preserve)

Jan. 24, 2020 by David Silverberg

President Donald Trump’s rollback of protections for streams and wetlands is “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago,” according to Prof. Bill Mitsch, a globally recognized wetlands expert and eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).

“This is a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA,” he wrote in a statement posted on LinkedIn.

Prof. Bill Mitsch, 2019

“I have followed this tug of war for all these years between those who appreciate the many ecosystem services that wetlands provide, including cleaning our waters, sequestering and permanently storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and providing the best habitat for hundreds of threatened and endangered species, and the industrial-scale agricultural, energy, and real estate giants” he wrote. “It has always been a David vs. Goliath [battle].”

Mitsch was writing after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday, Jan. 23, finalized a rule that removed protections for many of the nation’s streams, rivers, wetlands and groundwater.

The rule was part of the “Waters of the United States” rule put in place in 2015 under the administration of President Barack Obama that protected a variety of streams, rivers and wetlands from pollution, in particular those that ran intermittently or underground and served as sources for larger bodies of water.

The Trump rule, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” eliminates many of the previous protections, meaning that developers and industries no longer have to get permits under the Clean Water Act before dumping waste and pollutants like pesticides and fertilizers into many waterways. However, it continues regulation of larger, navigable bodies of water.

“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all: the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the United States rule,” Trump boasted on Sunday at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Austin, Texas. “That was a rule that basically took your property away from you.”

In Southwest Florida, with the Everglades and badly polluted rivers like the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie rivers flowing out of Lake Okeechobee, the rollback of protections could have a significant impact, especially on future algae blooms.

In response to a question from WINK-TV on the impact of the new rules on Southwest Florida, an EPA spokesperson stated:

“The waterbodies mentioned in your question – the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee River, and Estero Bay – are jurisdictional under the previous regulations and will remain jurisdictional under the new rule. Under the new rule, perennial and intermittent tributaries to these waterbodies would be regulated as ‘waters of the United States.’ In addition, those wetlands that are adjacent (as defined in the new rule) to these waterbodies and their perennial and intermittent tributaries would be ‘waters of the United States’ under the new rule.”

“Jurisdictional” waters are those still regulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

As the EPA explained in its statement:

“In the Clean Water Act, Congress explicitly directed the EPA and the Army Corps to protect ‘navigable waters.’ The Navigable Waters Protection Rule regulates these waters and the core tributary systems that provide perennial or intermittent flow into them. The Navigable Waters Protection Rule establishes four clear categories of waters are federally regulated:

  • The territorial seas and traditional navigable waters,
  • Perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters,
  • Certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments, and
  • Wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.”

However, it follows from the Trump rule that if waterways are not navigable or do not flow into a protected body of water or if wetlands are not immediately adjacent to jurisdictional waters, they’re no longer protected and can be subject to unregulated pollution.

Comment from Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), who has made water purity a centerpiece of his congressional tenure, was unavailable as of this writing. Similarly, there was no comment from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) who has made water quality a priority of his administration. Nor was there any comment on the state water website, Protecting Florida Together.

Mitsch, who has spent his entire career studying wetlands and who has proposed a natural cleaning method he calls “wetlaculture” to clean polluted wetlands like the Everglades, put out a call for action in the wake of the Trump regulatory rollback.

“I am calling for those of us who appreciate some of the good things that nature has provided for us, whether you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, to speak out about the rape of our landscape that will surely follow this action. I especially call upon those who are in the business world to help establish environmental bonds, local and state ordinances, and novel approaches to save our remaining wetlands. I also call upon the children and young adults, who are much more knowledgeable about wetlands than their parents and grandparents, to join the ‘silent majority’ who appreciate the role of wetlands to move forward, with or without our Federal government, to save our planet.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

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