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All Waters Are Connected: Speak Up Against the Dirty Water Rule

All Water Is Connected

Rain falls from the sky and lands on the earth. Some precipitation falls as snow on our mountaintops, piling on glaciers that will melt each summer and contribute to seasonal streamflows. Some falls in wet drops replenishing ponds, lakes, rivers and more. Some filters down through tree canopy to the soil as mist, where it will seep through the humus to nourish the forest, or help recharge groundwater aquifers. Groundwater can flow back to surface water, be taken up by plants, or flow out to the ocean. Plants breathe and transpire, returning water to the atmosphere. Through evaporation, water from the oceans is condensed and cycled back into the atmosphere again.

The water we drink, recreate in and on, and live next to has circulated through the hydrologic cycle again and again since time immemorial. About 70 percent of the human body is made up of water and, coincidentally, more than 70 percent of Earth is covered in water.

Did you know that if you live in Seattle, your body is 70% mountain water from the Cedar River or the Tolt River? This is where the City’s drinking water comes from. If you live in Everett, your body is 70% Sultan River water. If you live in Bellingham, your body is 70% Lake Whatcom water. If you live in Tacoma, you are made of the Green River. This water is not our own. We sweat, cry, urinate, and drink it in and out in a never-ending cycle.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the key law protecting surface water from pollution in the United States. Passed in 1972, the goals of the Clean Water Act are to eliminate the discharge of pollutants and to restore and maintain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters. The CWA requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create or oversee the creation of water quality standards by states, to develop and run a permitting system for polluters that discharge to protected waters, and to create, implement and enforce rules for certain types of “dischargers.” The CWA protects “Waters of the United States” from pollution (Sec. 301). Regulated dischargers must obtain a valid permit to discharge pollutants to a Water of the United States, and by complying with permit terms and other requirements, limit the amount of pollutants they discharge to safe amounts.

Debates have raged for decades between those who bear the long-term costs of pollution and those who bear the immediate costs of having their pollution regulated about how much pollution is safe and which waters merit protection under the Clean Water Act. In particular, the definition of "Waters of the United States" has been a hot topic for years.

Under President Trump's recent directive, the EPA is working to dramatically reduce which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act by repealing and revising the legal Waters of the United States rule, which was codified in 2015. The EPA's new rule has been coined “the Dirty Water Rule” by clean water advocates.

The Dirty Water Rule seeks to strip protections from millions of miles of rivers, streams, wetlands, and other waters nationwide by excluding certain types of waters from coverage - some for the first time in history - and redefining certain terms and definitions. The rule could declare open season on our public waters, authorizing polluters to dump unpermitted pollution into certain communities. You can find out more details about the rule from my webinar.

People Need Clean Water

There was bipartisan support for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and there is bipartisan support for clean water now. Polls show that 80% of Americans care a lot about clean water, and water pollution has always been top among Americans' environmental concerns. Records from Congressional hearings and deliberations that took place during the creation of the Clean Water Act clearly demonstrate that Congress wanted the CWA to be read as broadly, and to protect as many waters, as possible. This is because polluted water can cause illness, shorten lives, damage ecosystems and economies.

The importance of maintaining a broad definition of Waters of the United States under the CWA cannot be overstated. Pollution upstream adversely impacts downstream waters and water users. Once contaminated, it becomes incredibly difficult and costly to clean up or remedy many water pollutants, and often, the public bears burden of cleanup costs - as well as the burdens of pollution. The Dirty Water Rule poses a particularly insidious threat to tribal and indigenous persons that consume more fish in their diet in areas where waters may lose protection. In addition to indigenous persons, stripping existing pollution protections from waters will likely harm many communities already struggling under a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards.

Since the 1980’s when the term “environmental justice” was coined and became a topic of research, an ever-growing body of literature that has found that environmental hazards, including pollution, are disproportionately located in communities of color and low income communities. Nationwide, hazardous waste sites and toxic cleanups are more commonly found in communities of color and low income communities. In many places, hydraulic-fracturing oil wells, petrochemical facilities, industrial corridors, and landfills are more likely to be sited in these neighborhoods, and these communities are more likely to be harmed by air pollution, lead poisoning, and climate change. EPA’s actions will disproportionately impact people of color and low income communities, adding the burden of water pollution on those with the least mobility, least resources, and the most exposure or risk of environmental pollution and health risks.

Wildlife Needs Clean Water

The creatures on our planet will survive by virtue of our actions. Scientists document an ongoing sixth “mass extinction” event caused by human activity. With over 8 billion people on our planet, it is undeniable that humans are impacting every species and ecosystem on planet earth. The pollution of our waters contributes to global extinction rates. With intentional action, we have the power to curb pollution and recover currently threatened and endangered species before they go extinct. In the Pacific Northwest, two iconic endangered species - orca and Chinook salmon – demonstrate the imperative and potential for us to save species by stopping toxic pollution.

There are six species of salmon in Washington State, including Steelhead. The salmon of the Pacific Northwest are at all-time lows. Between 1984 and 2010, EPA documented a 60% decline in Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea. Several Puget Sound salmon runs are threatened and the 22 remaining populations of Chinook salmon are dangerously below federal recovery goals. The four "H's" threatening salmon include habitat loss and degradation due to pollution. For Coho salmon in Washington, depending on the creek, 60 percent to 90 percent of the fall run of females die each year with their bellies still full of eggs due to the toxicity of the water. Studies on Coho pre-spawn mortality demonstrate that a cocktail of chemicals coming from tires is lethal to Coho salmon. Salmon are fatty fish, and some toxics are stored in fat. Toxic chemicals like PCBs bioaccumulate in salmon and bio-magnify up the food chain in the creatures that consume them – including people and orcas.

As of January 11, 2019, the Southern Resident orca whale population totaled just 75 whales. In 2018, Governor Jay Inslee convened a special Southern Resident Orca Task Force in Washington State to prepare a report and recommendations on orca recovery. In its draft report, the Task Force found that orcas are gravely at risk due to lack of food, toxic contamination, and vessel traffic and noise. Chinook salmon are the primary food source for Southern Resident orcas.

These endangered species are of great personal and cultural significance, ecological importance, and research and economic value to many communities in the Pacific Northwest. Washington State spends millions of dollars each year on salmon recovery, with over a billion invested to date in these efforts, and more on orca recovery. Restoring these species is of paramount importance. The most cost-effective approach to saving these species is to prevent toxic contaminants from entering the environment in the first place - contaminants that can enter our water via stormwater, wastewater, and other point sources regulated by the Clean Water Act. We have always known that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Waters of the United States definition should be expanded, not gutted.

Speak Up Against the Dirty Water Rule

The Army Corps of Engineers and EPA estimate that the Dirty Water Rule would strip federal protections from at least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands nationwide. In fact, federal agencies don't have adequate data to identify all the waters that would lose protection or the impact of those losses: it could be much more.

The Clean Water Act is unique in providing individuals the opportunity to stop pollution with its "citizen’s suit" provision. But under the Trump Administration’s proposed changes, people who wish to protect local waterways or wetlands that no longer qualify as Waters of the United States would no longer have the right to legally advocate to stop pollution under the Clean Water Act. We would be robbed of our rights to seek redress for toxic pollution in our communities.

The Dirty Water Rule threatens to undermine the goals of the Clean Water Act – to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters – long before we have reached our goal. Close to 70 percent of the waters assessed by EPA in the United States are already classified as threatened or impaired, and we have not even completed assessments of all of our waters to date. EPA should withdraw the Dirty Water Rule from the record. You can ask them to do so, and voice your concerns, here:

EPA's misguided rule denies this fundamental truth: all waters are connected. It’s up to us to remind them.

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