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Trump administration strips pollution safeguards from drinking water sources

Oliver Milman in New York
Photograph: Chris O’Meara/AP

The Trump administration has completed its rollback of environmental protections for streams, wetland and other bodies of water, a process that has stripped pollution safeguards from drinking water sources used by around a third of all Americans.

Clean water protections strengthened under the Obama administration have long been targeted by Donald Trump, who has called it a “very destructive and horrible rule”.

Related: Trump administration to strip pollution protections, harming vital wildlife

Trump has been backed by ranchers, farming groups and golf course operators, who claim the so-called “Water of the United States” (Wotus) rule impinged upon landowners’ rights.

The Obama-era water rule was repealed last year and on Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a weakened replacement that removes millions of miles of streams and around half of America’s wetlands from federal oversight, potentially allowing pesticides and other pollutants to be dumped into them without penalty.

The move has dismayed former EPA staff who worked on the expansion of protections to ephemeral streams that supply drinking water to an estimated 117 million people in the US.

“The new rule is scientifically indefensible and socially unjust,” said Betsy Southerland, who was scientific director of the EPA’s office of water for three decades before departing in 2017.

“This EPA’s Wotus definition, which will limit federal water quality protections to a very small set of waters and wetlands, will result in the impairment of drinking water, fisheries and flood control for communities throughout the US.”

The Trump administration had promised the demise of the water rule to industry groups that lobbied against what they saw as costly federal overreach. “This new rule will provide much-needed clarity and regulatory certainty for companies that site and build infrastructure that delivers essential energy to America’s communities,” said Karen Harbert, chief executive of the American Gas Association.

But opponents of the repeal point out that the replacement regime not only scraps the Obama-era rule but also reverses protections reaching back to the 1972 Clean Water Act, such as requirements that landowners seek permits that the EPA considers on a case-by-case basis.

The new, far narrower, definition of water protections will maintain safeguards for major rivers such as the Mississippi River and the Colorado River but not short-lived streams that feed into them after it rains or snow melts. About 60% of streams in the US are dry for part of the year but then connect to large rivers following rainfall. Wetlands not situated next to large rivers will also be excluded from protections.

People living in the western US are set to be particularly affected by the new rule, with ephemeral streams making up around 89% of Nevada’s stream miles and 94% of Arizona’s, for example.

Environmental groups warn that as many as 75 endangered species dependent on temporary streams will be imperilled by the move, while any degradation of wetlands would also harm wildlife and worsen the climate crisis by lessening their ability to store carbon.

Trump told the World Economic Forum at Davos this week that the US has “among the cleanest air and drinking water on Earth”, despite widespread contamination with chemicals such as PFAS and neurotoxins such as lead in Americans’ water.

The Trump administration has dismantled about 100 environmental rules while in office, including the reversal of a ban on mining companies dumping their waste into rivers.

“The ‘dirty water rule’ will put clean drinking water for tens of millions of people at risk, especially the low-income communities and communities of colour already disproportionately impacted by polluted water,” said Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters.

“Clean, safe drinking water is a basic human right and we should be doing more to protect our water resources, not less,” she added.

Another expert warned of additional risks.

“The goal of the Trump administration rollback is to reduce the obligations of farmers, ranchers and other landowners in their requirements to protect water quality in the US,” said Catherine Kling, an environmental economist at Cornell University.

“This will lower regulatory costs to that group of Americans. But there are costs to the environment that will be borne by other Americans.”

These include, Kling said, the loss of healthy drinking water, algal blooms that sicken swimmers and pets and reduced value of properties near waterways.