Gary Emeigh/AP Photo
An aerial photo taken Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany Beach, Del., shows a housing development and a wooden road built on pilings in one of the freshwater wetlands in coastal Delaware.
Gary Emeigh/AP Photo
Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will lose federal protection under a new Trump administration rule that was finalized on Thursday. It's the latest regulatory rollback that could impact the bay's health.
Prior to his election, President Trump promised to do away with the Obama-era rule known as Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, which defined which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. Trump's replacement for that rule only protects wetlands if they are directly touching a major body of water. It's known as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, and the EPA says it will "result in economic growth across the country."
Beth McGee with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the rule will open up many wetlands on the Eastern Shore to development.
"Wetlands are really great filters of pollutants," McGee says. "We would lose that filtering capacity."
Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a press release that the change would provide "much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses." The question of which waterways are protected by federal law has been subject to argument and litigation — all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court — ever since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
But environmental groups say the new rule puts business interests ahead of clean water.
"It really flies in the face of all this good science," says McGee. She says wetlands that appear isolated are still connected to the bay and have a big impact on water quality. "It doesn't have to be a visual connection, and those connections are important ecologically as well as in terms of our ability to manage and reduce pollution."
The EPA's Obama-era WOTUS rule was based on a review of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed scientific articles. The review found "ample evidence" that isolated wetlands "provide physical, chemical, and biological functions that could affect the integrity of downstream waters." Wetlands closer to the water, in the riparian zone, "are physically, chemically, and biologically integrated with rivers," according to the review, published in 2015.
One of Trump's early acts as president was an executive order in February 2017 to review and revise the WOTUS rule.
Trump said in a speech earlier this week that he "terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all: the last administration's disastrous Waters of the United States rule." He gave those remarks at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention.
"That was a rule that basically took your property away from you," Trump said.
But Tom Pelton of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit working to support environmental law enforcement, says the biggest winners won't be farmers.
"What this is really is a huge victory for someone like — I don't know, a Donald Trump or another developer who wants to build 1,000 homes in the middle of fields and including some wetlands. They now will have more of a free hand to destroy that natural habitat," Pelton says.
Pelton co-authored a report in 2018 finding that more than 30,000 acres of wetlands would lose protection under Trump's regulatory rollback. He says that while state regulations do protect some of these wetlands, those rules may not be enforced as stringently.
"This is going to be a real setback for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup," Pelton says.
Beth McGee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says that within the Chesapeake watershed, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have state protections in place for isolated wetlands, but D.C. and Delaware do not. In D.C., she says, about 10% of remaining wetlands could lose protection under the rule change.