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Trump's clean-water rollback is latest flashpoint in urban-rural divide

Gazing at Cayuga Creek in Lancaster, Jill Jedlicka sees a tributary that could return pollution to the Buffalo River – all because the Trump administration recently decided to roll back regulations aimed at protecting the nation's smaller waterways.

"It's a systematic, disassembling of the tools and the resources and the laws that are on the books to help us protect our water quality," Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, said of Trump's effort.

But on the Wyoming County farm where the Buffalo River starts, Pat McCormick couldn't be happier that Trump's Environmental Protection Agency recently repealed Obama-era regulations that extended federal pollution controls to small streams as well as water bodies that come and go with the seasons.

"They were trying to regulate basically every inch of our ground," McCormick said.

That stark difference of opinion over the nation's main clean-water law will now likely be fought in the courts.

In the meantime, though, Trump's decision inflamed passions over a set of regulations that have, for years, served as a flashpoint in the nation's ever-widening urban-rural divide.

For proof, just compare and contrast the comments of Buffalo's congressman and the president who's most beloved in rural America.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat, said Trump is rolling back regulations that aim to control "the existential threat to the viability of Lake Erie and Great Lakes – and that is farming and other activities."

Jill Jedlicka of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper checks out the water in Cayuga Creek in Lancaster. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

But Trump said the issue is much simpler than that.

"Government will no longer try to micromanage every rain puddle and every drainage ditch on private land," the president said.

A controversial rule

Then-President Barack Obama and his aides said they were simply doing a common-sense thing when they broadened the definition of water bodies protected under the federal Clean Water Act.

“The only people with reason to oppose the rule are polluters who threaten our clean water,” senior White House adviser Brian Deese told reporters during a conference call back in 2015.

Obama administration officials said their new rule would end the confusion over which waterways are protected under federal law. So long as a body of water flows into another that's navigable, then it qualifies for federal protection, the new rule said.

But farmers saw the new rule as a burden – and they quickly won plenty of allies in Congress, including Rep. Chris Collins. A Clarence Republican, Collins started protesting the new rule in letters and hearings even before it became finalized. He also co-sponsored legislation that would have repealed Obama's effort.

Rep. Chris Collins. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Not surprisingly, Collins was thrilled when Trump finally overturned the rule.

“The Obama ‘clean water’ rule was nothing more than a giant power grab by the Obama Administration that had real and harmful consequences on America’s hardworking farmers and small business owners,” Collins said in a statement last week.

Pollution concerns

To hear environmentalists tell it, though, the real and harmful consequences of the rule's repeal will be on the nation's waterways.

And for proof, they point to the western parts of Lake Erie. There, giant algal blooms have appeared summer after summer, creating "dead zones" so deprived of oxygen that the lake's natural inhabitants can't survive there.

Lake Erie algae blooms like this one at a Presque Isle marina could become worse if predictions in the new National Climate Assessment come true. (File photo)

The National Science Foundation blames Lake Erie's algal blooms on farm runoff – exactly what the Obama-era rule was created to control.

"It's everybody's responsibility to protect our water," said Brian Smith, associate executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Buffalo. "And these are rules really apply to everyone, including farmers. They need to follow the rules like everybody else."

Only the federal government can ensure that farm runoff from all the Great Lakes states doesn't seep into Lake Erie and create problems there, Smith added.

Jedlicka, of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, said the Trump administration's move will remove federal protections from upward of 1,000 miles of waterways in the four-county Buffalo River watershed.

And Lauren Rubin, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said Trump's action will create problems far beyond Buffalo.

"This move undermines efforts to restore the Great Lakes, threatens our drinking water, jeopardizes our public health, harms our outdoor recreation economy, and diminishes our quality of life," Rubin said.

Angry farmers

Farmers say, though, that their quality of life sank as soon as Obama tried regulating every pond and puddle on their property.

"It's so ridiculous when you come down to it," said Ashur Terwillinger, a Chemung County beef farmer and a persistent critic of the Obama regulations. "Now the way they had that worded, if you have a heavy rainstorm or have melt-off in the spring and there's a puddle of water in a field, that becomes 'waters of the U.S.' and is subject to regulation – which is crazy."

And that's not all. A ditch that a farmer digs that becomes filled with rain could be seen as subject to regulation under the Obama rule. So could a gully on the edge of a farm that only fills with water when the snow melts or when there's a big rainstorm.

McCormick, who owns a 600-cow dairy farm in Java Center, said the definitions in the new rule were so vague that he couldn't tell if a pool of water that formed after a rainstorm, and then seeped into the ground, would be subject to regulation.

Agricultural runoff from livestock farms can contribute to creek and stream pollution. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

He also bristled at the Obama officials' apparent assumption that farmers couldn't be trusted to be good environmental stewards of their own land. He said most now take great care in using fertilizer so that it does not run off into waterways and cause problems downstream – as they must under existing state regulations.

That being the case, Lauren Williams, senior associate director of national affairs at the New York Farm Bureau, indicated environmentalists are exaggerating the impact of Trump's move.

"I think that's probably a bit overstated, that they say that we're not going to have clean water anymore," she said. "You know, in New York State, we regulate how manure is spread, how nutrients are applied."

The state's role

New York long has been a national leader in environmental regulation. And if anything, Trump's move may make the state crack down even harder on water pollution.

Two bills pending before the State Legislature would extend clean-water protections to smaller streams and wetlands, and environmentalists said Trump's deregulatory efforts might give that state legislation new momentum in Albany next year.

Beyond that, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced earlier this month that his 2020 State of the State address will include a "Revive Mother Nature" initiative.

"The essence of it is: Let's restore habitats but also restore healthy levels of fish and shellfish in our state's waters while protecting wetlands," said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Like Obama's new regulations, Trump's deregulatory effort is likely to be challenged in court, Seggos said. But he said the state isn't going to wait for any court opinions before strengthening its own clean-water protections.

"Washington is backsliding, and for the sake of our state, we’ve chosen to lead the nation," he said.

Trump water changes a boost for farmers – but how will they impact Lake Erie?

 

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