PRESS EDITORIAL: State must step up after EPA bails on water protection

The Wisconsin DNR’s job just got harder to do and more important to do right, thanks to the Trump administration.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it was ending federal protection for non-navigable waterways, a classification that is estimated to include more than half of America’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams.

The effect of this change will be that polluters will not be restrained by the EPA from discharging pesticides, industrial chemicals, fertilizers and animal waste into the affected waters.

In Wisconsin, this leaves the Department of Natural Resources as the last line of defense against water quality degradation that threatens recreational waters, wildlife habitat including fishing waters and even drinking water.

Our DNR, fortunately, has generally proved to be up to the task. Unlike states that have been negligent in recognizing the value and the vulnerability of isolated bodies of water, wetlands and so-called intermittent streams, Wisconsin has policies that recognize the importance of these water sources to the quality of life in this state.

Elsewhere—within the Trump EPA and in the lobbying arguments of groups that fought water quality protections as economic impediments—these waters have been ridiculed as puddles and ditches that property owners should be free to treat or mistreat as they please.

Federal protection of these waters was put in place in 2015 precisely because they are environmentally significant—because they are valuable resources in themselves and because their contamination can migrate to other waters, including rivers, lakes and even groundwater.

At the time, EPA officials said that what was named the Waters of the United States rule was designed to limit pollution in roughly 60% of the country’s bodies of water and in the drinking water for about one-third of the U.S.

Now that protection is one of 95 environmental rules eliminated by the Trump administration. In campaign speeches, the president repeated claims made by interests opposed to the rule that it was government overreach that denied landowners, developers and farmers the right to do as they please with their property.

They were only half wrong. The rule was a proper reach by the federal government approved by a Supreme Court ruling. But it did put limits on property owners, such as farmers required to get an EPA permit to use certain types of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on land near streams and wetlands.

Every business owner knows that government regulations can be irritating, inconvenient and costly, and this certainly applies to those meant to protect the environment. But if they are sound policy, their benefits outweigh their costs, which was clearly true of the cancelled water rule.

The vested interests that benefit from denying federal protection to non-navigable waterways are applauding, but most citizens have nothing to cheer about.

That includes fishermen, hunters and other outdoor sports enthusiasts. Chris Wood, the president of Trout Unlimited, said, “We cannot overstate how far this sets us back when it comes to protecting our water.” His organization has identified more than 100,000 miles of streams in Wisconsin that have lost federal protection.

The National Parks Conservation Association had a similar reaction. “The administrations’s rollback of clean water protection is a devastating blow to our national parks and surrounding communities,” said the organization’s president, Theresa Pierno.

Not heard from since the federal protections were abolished is Wisconsin DNR secretary Preston Cole. The DNR chief appointed by Gov. Tony Evers had urged the EPA to retain the water protections, but now that the decision went the other way it is time for Cole to issue a ringing public reaffirmation of the DNR’s mission to safeguard Wisconsin’s water resources, even though it will have to do it without federal backup.

The DNR has had some lapses in its water quality regulation by being too generous in easing wetland requirements for developers. But overall, the agency has been true to the imperative to protect the special water resource gifts nature has given in Wisconsin.

Now, more than ever, it must not waver.   


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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