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Federal water proposal decimates pollution protections

Now is the brief window to join the battle against a Trump administration proposal to radically shrink the nation’s number of streams and wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act. This proposal is a gift to polluters that would threaten millions who depend on clean water and streams for drinking, farming, recreation, and economic development. It only takes seconds to register your opposition at

“This would be the biggest rollback in the history of the Clean Water Act,” said Blan Holman, leader of the Clean Water Defense Initiative at Southern Environmental Law Center. “They want to gut protections that Americans have relied on for generations to protect our water.”

The Clean Water Act works by prohibiting pollution in our waterways without a permit. Getting a permit requires companies to limit their discharges and use best-available pollution controls. A critical tool used by state and local officials to keep our water safe, the Clean Water Act recognizes that we must protect tributaries and source waters upstream to keep our downstream rivers and lakes clean.

The new rule proposed by the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency takes an axe to upstream protections. It would remove Clean Water Act protection from all ephemeral tributaries—those that flow in direct response to rain events. The proposal also asks for input on stripping protections of intermittent streams — those that flow part of the year, not typically every day of every year – and even small perennial streams that have flow throughout the year. All of these streams flow into our larger bodies of water and carry pollution downstream.

Even EPA’s conservative estimates suggest that more than half of the streams in the country could lose protection. In Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virginia alone, more than 290,000 miles of streams would be threatened.

The proposal is even worse for wetlands, which play a critical role by storing floodwaters and trapping pollution so it doesn’t flow downstream. “We are talking about losing protections for more than half of the nation’s wetlands,” Holman said. “The blows to water quality, flood protection, and wildlife habitat are mind blowing.”

Those who enjoy fishing, swimming, paddling, and other recreational uses could encounter a lot more pollution in those waters if this rule takes effect.

Many of the rivers at the heart of recently revived city centers across the Southeast — like the Reedy River in Greenville, S.C., the James River in Richmond, and the Tennessee River in Chattanooga — are in much better condition now because of the Clean Water Act. “A lot of folks don’t remember that many of the rivers that are now centerpieces and living parts of revived city centers were cesspools,” Holman said. “Now they are civic gathering places and the heart of their communities, thanks to the Clean Water Act.”

While the administration has peddled its proposal as aimed at farmers, EPA’s own analysis shows that agricultural interests seek only a tiny fraction of permits – many more go to heavily polluting industries. The agency pushing the proposal, EPA, is now controlled at the highest levels by former lobbyists and lawyers for coal, oil, gas, and utility companies.

“This is part of a polluter-first agenda and everybody who drinks water should be concerned,” said Holman. “Every day we learn more about contaminants in our water — microplastics, Teflon chemicals, other toxins. The Clean Water Act is our main shield against that.”

Public comments – due by April 15 – are a vital step in the process and can be easily submitted at First, because the administration must by law, consider this input before finalizing the rule, a large volume of comments ensures that the agencies cannot move hastily when dismantling long-held protections. Second, strong public opposition can deter the agencies from pursuing even more aggressive cuts. Finally, comments are essential to countering misleading claims that the public supports trashing long-held environmental standards.

“We certainly hope the agencies come to their senses and listen to the public,” said Holman.  “But if they do not and insist on ignoring the public and the law again, we won’t sit back and watch them jeopardize the water our families and communities depend on; we will be back in court.”

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