Last month, the Trump administration released a proposal to repeal the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States policy, which protected roughly 60 percent of U.S. streams from pollution under the Clean Water Rule, a policy under the Clean Water Act.
Trump signed an executive order in February instructing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to revise the policy. Fossil fuel companies, farmers and other groups opposed the Clean Water Rule, but without it some groups fear negative environmental impact.
UNM emeritus professor Bruce Thomson said the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, protecting various surface waters throughout the U.S. with a loose definition. Over the next 20 years, it was interpreted to be waters used in commerce and their tributaries. In 2015, the Clean Water Rule created a clear definition of which waters within the U.S. are protected.
In New Mexico the rule was criticized for being too strict, Thomson said, only including arroyos that filled a handful of times per year.
In New Mexico, the rule clarified small streams used for livestock, wildlife, irrigation and recreation are covered by the Clean Water Act, said Rachel Conn, projects director for New Mexico water protection agency Amigos Bravos. This ensures wastewater treatment plants, mines and industrial discharges are monitored in these bodies of water, over 93 percent of which are small and flow into the state’s main river systems.
“The Trump administration is proposing to reverse those years of meetings, those hundreds of hours of stakeholder input and outreach and comment period, all in 30 days. (It’s) an insult to public process, and it’s an insult to clean water,” she said, referring to the repeal’s public comment period.
If the repeal is successful, “it’s a particular concern to New Mexico, because we don’t have very much surface water...The concern would be that the definition for clean water protection is so restricted that most of our waters would lose protection,” said UNM emeritus environmental law professor Denise Fort.
Twenty percent of New Mexico’s animal species utilize small streams and 24 of those species are identified by the state as Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The EPA estimates that at least 280,000 New Mexicans use drinking water from small streams.
“The Trump Administration’s actions against clean water and air will impact the health of New Mexicans and our environment,” said Mary Clark, sustainability manager for UNM Physical Plant Department. “At UNM we hold ourselves to the highest federal, state and industry standards in providing clean water and a healthy environment in our buildings and on our campus. We will not be willing to downgrade our own standards and services.”
Civil engineering PhD student at UNM Phil Roveto hopes that scientists and public servants will present the current administration with scientific reasoning and observable data and prevent the repeal.
“Unfortunately, while the Trump administration may only slow down our country's push towards developing renewable energy sources, climatologists fear that even short-term delays in action could have substantial effects,” Roveto said. “Dirtying our air and water for the benefit of the declining fossil fuel industry highlights the short-sightedness and disregard for future generations demonstrated by both the White House and the GOP leadership.”
There is a lengthy process behind the proposed repeal, and the implementation of statewide protections leads some to believe there will not be immediate change.
Thompson said he assumes the repeal will cause the definition of waters of the U.S. to return to what they were in 2014.
“I don’t expect that there will be any major changes in the way that the rivers and wetlands and lakes are protected in New Mexico,” he said.
Fort said New Mexico has a law that does not depend on the federal protection.
“Under the (state) water quality law, there are no problems with the state protecting every single body of water that might be polluted. I think that the focus is going to turn, and should turn, toward the state environment department to ask it to use its authority more vigorously,” she said.
Five years from now the EPA may reduce the level of oversight and redefine protected waters as waters that are entirely navigable, leaving ephemeral streams unprotected, Thompson said.
“Right now, we’ve got good protections,” he said. “The only thing I worry about is if they go back and open up the definition of the waters of the U.S,” leaving various bodies of water vulnerable to contamination.
“Those of us old enough to remember how Lake Erie was dead and air pollution was so bad that you could not allow your children to play outside know that it is the citizens, not the corporations, that demand high quality standards for our water and air,” Clark said.
Environmental engineering students like Roveto are in the process of drafting a letter to Mayor Richard Berry, Gov. Susana Martinez and state representatives in protest of the Trump administration's “callous and ignorant views towards the world's environment.”
“The letter will state our dedication to environmental science and efforts towards understanding and reversing climate change, dealing with already scarce resources,” Roveto said. He invites other students to sign the petition as soon as possible.
“Part of community involvement involves being vocal and visible in your support of science, whether through marches such as the March for Science last April or through communication with your elected officials,” he said. “Our desert climate is fragile and is already affected by a lack of fresh water. We cannot agree through silence to suffer further drought. If we care about where we live, we must have the courage to speak out against actions that work to its detriment.”
Elizabeth Sanchez is the Editor-in-Chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Beth_A_Sanchez.