water regulations talk

Bill Sapp, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, left, talks to a group

Wednesday at Hop Soul Brewery about concerns with revisions to the Clean Water Act.

Protecting clean water regulations was on tap Wednesday at Hop Soul Brewing in Brunswick.

“Essentially, the current administration’s taking a sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Bill Sapp, at a gathering Wednesday to promote protection of the region’s waterways and encourage public comments against the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback of those protections.

Public comment on the new rule ends Monday.

“What I mean by that is, they’re trying to get a rule through — an administrative rule — that will cut the number of wetlands being protected by the Clean Water Act by over 80 percent,” Sapp said. “And, it will also cut the number of small streams that are protected under the Clean Water Act by over 50 percent, so that’s really huge. It’ll have a huge impact on water quality. It’ll have a huge impact on recreation.”

Using duck hunters as an example, he said if those wetlands are affected and compromised, effectively curtailing recreational activity, that’s going to have a real economic effect as well. When people aren’t paying money for gear, access to the wetlands and other associated spending that comes from that, activity could fall away.

“One thing, when we’re here on the coast, I want us all to remember that we are downstream,” said Laura Early, the Satilla Riverkeeper. The Satilla and St. Marys riverkeepers, along with the Glynn Environmental Coalition, hosted the event, with the idea that, “Good beer needs clean water.”

Early continued, “So, whatever’s going on upstream in those small tributaries and in the wetlands, it impacts our environment down the river on the coast. If those small tributaries and those wetlands that are essential to the … function of our watershed are destroyed, or they’re not protected, then we’ll feel those impacts down here….”

Waters of the United States are waters subject to regulation by the federal government under the Clean Water Act. Much of the argument here is around ephemeral and intermittent streams. Ephemeral streams are considered rain-dependent, in that runoff is the primary source of water. Intermittent streams are considered seasonal, in that they only flow during times of the year when upstream waters and groundwater provides enough water for flow.

The new rule would ax ephemeral streams from Clean Water Act coverage, and environmental advocates say that the fact the EPA is looking for comments on cutting intermittent streams suggests those are also on the chopping block.

That would be a massive rollback of federal environmental protections of the nation’s waterways.

EPA leadership’s made misleading statements about what the proposed new rule does, which creates problems in assessing it. For instance, EPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator Dave Ross said in December, in a media conference call, “If you see percentages of water features that are claimed to be in, or reductions, there really isn’t the data there to support those statistics. No one has that data.”

Yet, a 2008 EPA document, “The Ecological and Hydrological Significance of Ephemeral and Intermittent Streams in the Arid and Semi-arid American Southwest,” details how much of the country’s waterways are categorized as ephemeral or intermittent. That’s 94 percent of streams in Arizona, 89 percent in Nevada, 88 percent in New Mexico, 79 percent in Utah, 68 percent in Colorado and 66 percent in California.

Even in Georgia, the numbers are significant. Trout Unlimited created an online, interactive visual data presentation using numbers provided by the U.S. Geological Service’s High Resolution National Hydrography Dataset to show the percentage of ephemeral and intermittent streams in the country’s river basins.

There isn’t data available for ephemeral streams in local basins, but an estimated 31 percent of streams in the Altamaha River basin are intermittent, as are 49 percent of streams in the Satilla River basin.

The 2008 EPA report stated 59 percent of all streams in the United States, excluding Alaska, are ephemeral and intermittent. A 2017 slideshow created by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers — obtained by E&E News under a Freedom of Information Act request — puts the number even higher, ostensibly including Alaska. It classifies 52 percent of streams as intermittent and 18 percent as ephemeral, or a combined 70 percent of all streams in the United States.

The 2017 slides show 13.7 percent of potential wetland acreage in the country intersecting with intermittent and ephemeral streams.

Presently, the country is governed by two standards. One, through the 2015 Clean Water Rule, covers California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia.

The current EPA is working on a repeal-and-replace strategy with the 2015 rule, which generally expanded Clean Water Act coverage. Hence, the proposed new rule.

Thanks to an injunction granted by U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood in the WOTUS lawsuit active in the federal court in Brunswick, Georgia and 10 other states — Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin — operate on the pre-2015 Clean Water Act regulations.

Other cases in other courts have resulted in the halting of enforcement of the 2015 rule in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

Add on top of this the Trump administration’s proposed new rule, and you’ve got three different standards to consider, just to start.

To comment on the proposed rule, you can submit them online through the public docket, using Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149 at the federal rulemaking portal at regulations.gov.

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