20 Dec Roll back of Clean Water Rule will negatively impact SoCal wetlands
Roll-back of Clean Water Rule (WOTUS) protections will hurt Los Angeles River and California wetlands
Last week, our natural environment was dealt a devastating setback. The Trump Administration has proposed narrowing the Clean Water Rule (known as WOTUS, short for Waters of the United States) to exclude seasonal streams and wetlands, thus exempting polluting industries, oil drillers and developers from regulations that protect crucial wetlands, streams and bodies of water.
EPA officials who spent years diligently preparing for the regulatory update by determining appropriate regulations for wetlands and streams are now being asked to roll back and curtail protections with deference to “state’s rights”. How a given administration defines bodies of water impacts protections and permissions. The current administration wishes for WOTUS to adhere to late Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s interpretation, from a decision he held in 2006 that cited a dictionary definition of “running water”, instead of a century of hydrology and science. This approach and narrow interpretation of our watersheds run countercurrent to the agency’s mission to apply holistic approaches to determining environmentally sound solutions that protect human health and foster prosperity.
In the short run, there is no immediate impact on the LA River given the rule changes, however in the long run the answer is more complicated.
While the rule change will nonetheless impact virtually every state in the union (nearly 60% of streams in the lower 48 states), it disproportionately rolls back protections on seasonal streams in the Southwestern U.S., like those in the Los Angeles River’s watershed. The loss of these protections will impact almost all of California’s wetlands, all seasonal streams in the LA River’s watershed, and impact over 70% of our drinking water sources in Los Angeles County.
The LA River is impervious to the rule change in part because of FoLAR’s work to get the EPA to recognize the LA River as a traditional navigable waterway. The River movement successfully demonstrated and lobbied the EPA from 2008 to 2010 to overturn the US Army Corps narrow definition of navigable sections of the LA River. Central to the coalition’s efforts was the staging of a symbolic kayak journey from headwaters to mouth of the River.
EPA officials at the time cited “recreational and commercial opportunities, public access, susceptibility to restoration, and the presence of ongoing restoration and educational projects” as factors in their recognition of the LA River as a protected waterway. The FoLAR-led river movement created the conditions by which the LA River has been given its due recognition as real waterway subject to the legal protections that cannot be easily stripped away in favor of developers or polluting industries. (You can read more from 2010 on our FoLAR blog.)
Friends of the LA River fought for the LA River to be seen as more than just a flood channel but as a traditional navigable waterway. That historic effort has given the River added protection against current administration rule changes to protected waterways.
Elected officials and advocacy organizations have long signaled they would oppose any reclassification of the River, and scholars indicate a WOTUS rule change alone wouldn’t change the LA River’s classification. For a deep dive on the legal history of the LA River and the 2006 case at the heart of rule changes to WOTUS, don’t miss this great and timely article from E&E News.
This is a disastrous policy for our already degraded and destroyed riparian landscapes. Ultimately, protection and restoration of waterways are some of the best approaches we can take to respond to climate change. Should we fail to link restoration of our waterways to the seasonal streams and wetlands, we will be incapable of delivering the promise of habitat for wildlife, open space for humans, and resilience in the face of climate change. For these reasons, FoLAR joins the chorus of environmental organizations condemning this action. (NRDC and Sierra Club have also published oppositions.)
With the especially critical ecosystem services these water systems provide, we must not only protect what’s left, but regenerate as much as we can to reverse the damaging effects of habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, groundwater pollution, flooding, loss of fishing and swimming opportunities.
FoLAR continues to push for ecological restoration on the banks of the LA River to afford wildlife and humans access to a natural resource than can unify our communities, offset the impact of climate change storms, and reconnect us to nature. Today’s contentious political landscape is a reminder to get involved and stay active – the accomplishments of yesterday have opened doors to continually addressing social and environmental issues in our River community.