FGCU wetlands expert Bill Mitsch hails Biden rollback of Trump water rule

Eminent scholar says SWFL waters to benefit from EPA, US Army rewrite

Eminent scholar Bill Mitsch is praising a new definition of US waters that will protect Southwest Florida waters and wetlands against pollution. (Photo: Facebook)

June 14, 2021 by David Silverberg

In an act directly benefiting Southwest Florida and its waters, President Joe Biden’s administration is rolling back a Trump-era rule allowing unregulated pollution of streams and rivers.

Bill Mitsch, eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), hailed the announcement, made last Wednesday, June 9.

“It’s a good move,” Mitsch told The Paradise Progressive in an interview. “I’m happy because it’s the right direction.”

In January 2020, Mitsch vehemently denounced a rule under President Donald Trump that relaxed restrictions on water pollution, calling it “a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA” and saying its imposition was “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago.”

Michael Regan, EPA administrator, announces rollback of the Trump water rule . (Photo: AP)

Last week’s rollback announcement was made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army, which oversees the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps plays an outsized role in Southwest Florida water management.

“I’m delighted both agencies have stepped forward,” said Mitsch. “This, in my view, is a good turn for Southwest Florida and especially the Everglades.”

The EPA and Army will be revising the definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS) to “better protect our nation’s vital water resources that support public health, environmental protection, agricultural activity, and economic growth,” according to the announcement.

Under the Trump administration, WOTUS was redefined under the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to hold that the Clean Water Act did not apply to waters like streams, creeks and rivers that were not navigable or not adjacent to navigable waters.

Put another way, these waters could be subject to unregulated pollution and exploitation. This affected tens of thousands of waters throughout the United States. It was particularly harsh on Southwest Florida with its innumerable wetlands and arid regions like the Southwest United States.

“After reviewing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule as directed by President Biden, the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that this rule is leading to significant environmental degradation,” Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, stated in the press release announcing the rule change. “We are committed to establishing a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from the lessons learned from the current and previous regulations, as well as input from a wide array of stakeholders, so we can better protect our nation’s waters, foster economic growth, and support thriving communities.”

The EPA and Army will now start a process of remanding the Trump rule and redefining WOTUS, while restoring the water protections that existed prior to 2016. It will try to keep waters clean, use the latest scientific and climate change data, take into consideration practical needs and build on the experiences and input of water purity stakeholders.

From feds to Florida and the challenges ahead

Mitsch warned that while the Trump rule rollback was a major step in the right direction, it did not end the challenges to water purity, especially in Florida.

Mitsch has long experience with WOTUS and definitions of “wetlands” and “waters.” In the 1990s he worked with the federal government’s scientific bodies to define “wetlands” properly only to run up against Vice President Dan Quayle, who wanted the definition to favor builders and developers.

“This is déjà vu all over again for me,” said Mitsch. “It’s the same issue that keeps coming back. It’s quite contentious.”

“Waters” and “wetlands” have been officially defined twice before, according to Mitsch.

“I hope they don’t get on a third definition that’s political and not scientific. I hope they have the stamina to go through with it,” he said of current efforts. “There is no such thing as a [legitimate] political definition of a ‘wetland’—otherwise we might as well throw out all our scientific books.”

Mitsch is especially concerned that the state of Florida’s takeover of wetland permitting and environmental protection from the federal government will result in a degradation of Florida’s wetlands and waters. Authority for wetland permitting was transferred from the US EPA to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection in December 2020 in one of the last official acts of the Trump administration.

“I’m very much afraid of Florida taking wetland management away from the feds. What the feds are doing is great but I’ve seen it before,” he said.  “There’s no question why [the state] wanted to take over water regulation, it was for development.” While he said he was discouraged that “the train is out of the station in Florida, I hope the momentum of this [new federal rule] spills into Florida somehow.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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