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Editorial: Murky water policy

The expression “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” comes to mind when considering the Trump administration’s proposal to rewrite federal clean water rules.

The administration of President Barack Obama in 2015 issued regulations to clarify which bodies of water are subject to the federal Clean Water Act, which was issued in 1972. The Obama rules widened the definition of “waters of the United States” covered by the Clean Water Act to include a variety of ditches, lakes, streams and wetlands that feed into larger waterways, including areas on private property.

Farmers, among others, protested that the rules were too burdensome. Court challenges held off implementation of the rules until summer of 2019 in New York and some other states.

“We were really scared that if the regulations went into effect, we wouldn’t be able to dig a ditch or move a fence without a permit from the EPA,” Jim Bittner, a Niagara County farmer, told The News.

President Trump, calling the Obama-era regulations “very destructive and horrible,” made a priority to dismantle them. The Environmental Protection Agency this month issued a Trump-directed plan – now in a 60-day public comment period – that goes beyond repealing the previous administration’s rules.

The Trump rules would erase a decades-old standard that allowed the government to regulate waterways even if they were often dry, if they sometimes carried polluted water into streams, rivers and lakes.

The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in U.S. history. The EPA’s plan to dilute it not only risks bringing more pollution to some of Western New York’s waterways, it would unfairly shift costs of environmental cleanup from businesses to taxpayers, sticking taxpayers with the polluters’ bill.

According to EPA figures, at least 45 percent of the drinking water supply in Erie and Niagara counties comes from the sort of “intermittent, ephemeral and headwater” streams that would be deregulated under the Trump proposal.

If deregulation leads to more pollution in our supply of drinking water, “cities and municipalities will have to pay a lot more to clean that water,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The News.
Farmers are happy with the rollback of “red tape,” but the new rules would give them more leeway to dump fertilizers on their land, with less concern for where the pollution ends up. That could also lead to more plentiful algal blooms, another worry and one that already harms parts of Lake Erie.

In political parlance, one person’s “government regulation” is another’s “consumer protection.” And the issue of water regulations has, predictably, become a political tug of war. Rep. Chris Collins, the Clarence Republican and loyal supporter of President Trump, called the Trump proposals “great news for farmers right here in Western New York.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said the new rules would threaten waterways such as the Buffalo River, calling the Trump proposals “a direct attack on Buffalo and Buffalo waterfront development and all the progress that’s been made in the last decade,” Higgins said.

Environmental groups will surely challenge the new regulations, possibly tying them up in court for years. And if a new president were elected in 2020, he or she might scrap the proposals.

Reasonable people can disagree on the virtues of the Obama-era clean water rules. The Trump administration remedy, though, is an overcorrection that could threaten to undo some of the environmental progress our region has made on its way to an economic rebound.

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