Facing rough water?
Trump administration’s proposal that would reduce federal protection causes concern
WESTMINSTER» On a sweltering summer day, there’s nothing sweeter for Navy veteran Derek Garcia, back from serving his country abroad, than fishing the cool waters of Hidden Lake with his father, grandparents and daughter.
And the Trump administration’s recent proposal that would roll back federal protection against pollution and development at this oasis — and thousands of other lakes, streams and wetlands nationwide — upsets him deeply.
Protecting pristine pockets of water “is extremely important,” said Garcia, a business owner, helping Aaliyah, 8, reel in sunfish and bass.
“It’s important to have these water resources around in the city, easily accessible,” he said. “Not everybody has time, or the money, to go to the mountains to fish.”
Garcia’s reaction to President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt’s push to weaken federal power over streams and wetlands reflected wide concern across Colorado and the West, where more than half the waterways could lose protection. That’s because Western watersheds often do not hold water year-round or are less obviously linked to the “navigable waters” that Trump administration lawyers contend are the only waters that merit protection. The EPA proposal, hailed as reining in government overreach, would limit federal regulation of development and
“President Trump promised to drain the swamp. Instead, this EPA proposal aims to drain our wetlands and pollute our streams.”
David Nickum, Colorado Trout Unlimited director
pollution to large connected waterways.
Less than 30 percent of Colorado’s estimated 95,000 miles of streams are likely to qualify for protection if the current system is changed as proposed, according to a 2009 study by the conservation group Trout Unlimited. EPA data show that 77,850 miles of waterways in Colorado are ephemeral, only flowing seasonally or during rain.
Federal environmental officials must protect “waters of the United States” under the nation’s landmark 1972 Clean Water Act — by requiring property owners to obtain permits designed to minimize impact before water can be polluted or wetlands destroyed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers administers these permits, typically requiring six months or more for processing — a source of frustration for some.
Trump’s team has proposed to repeal a broader definition of “waters of the United States” that the EPA and Army Corps adopted in 2015 under President Barack Obama — one that expanded protection following U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that created confusion. The court ruled that federal authorities could only require permits for pollution and dredging of “navigable waters.” The Obama-era approach, still not implemented due to lawsuits, allows regulation of flowing water, including ephemeral streams, with exemptions for agriculture.
Publication in the federal register on June 27 of the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal and replace clean water standards triggered a 30-day period for public comment. Then the rollback would take effect. However, more than 70 members of Congress last week requested an extension to no less than six months. On Thursday, the League of Conservation Voters and 18 other environment groups sent Pruitt a letter requesting the same.
While Colorado has statelevel rules limiting water pollution that still could apply, there is no state rule against dredging and filling that destroys wetlands and streams.
Beer brewers were among the first to object. Eight craft brewers in Colorado, joined by counterparts nationwide, sent a letter to EPA and Army Corps leaders urging maximum protection.
“Beer is mostly water, so the quality of our source water affects our finished product. Even small chemical disruptions in our water supply can alter the taste of a brew or influence factors like shelf life and foam pattern,” they wrote. “We need reliable sources of clean water to consistently produce the great beer that is key to our success.”
In western Colorado, a growing reliance on pristine water for the economy — depending more on recreation and tourism — compelled concern. The fuzzy meaning of “waters of the United States” and delays issuing federal permits are a problem, many agree, and local officials would welcome greater clarity, said Torie Jarvis, co-director of the Water Quantity and Quality Committee (QQ) of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. But most favor greater protection, not less.
“While QQ supports increased clarity for the definition of ‘waters of the United States,’ this clarity should not mean reduced water quality protection under the Clean Water Act,” Jarvis and the other local leaders told EPA officials June 19, after the feds had asked for input for their proposed repeal and overhaul of clean water rules.
“Water quality in the headwaters of Colorado is critically important for our regional tourism economy as much as for environmental protection. Tourism is the largest employment sector in the headwaters region, comprising 48 percent of all jobs,” local officials wrote. “Tourism in the region includes fishing, hunting, kayaking, rafting, wading, lake and reservoir recreation, wildlife watching, hiking, and snowmaking for ski resorts, all of which depend on clean water.”
Some local officials reckon they could protect cherished watersheds on their own, without robust federal clean water rules, by using their power to regulate land use.
Environment groups last week argued that a federal role is necessary to buttress local power.
“Local governments may be able to control some impacts based on conditions they might impose on developments, but they do not have a statutory obligation to do so — so the ability to protect these important resources ends up relying on their level of commitment to protecting water quality, and their ability to have the expertise and resources to do so, which for smaller local governments can be a real limitation,” Colorado Trout Unlimited director David Nickum said.
“Our main practical concern with the change in these federal standards is that we would lose the protection for seasonal streams and for wetlands from being dredged or filled in — protection that currently is provided. … Allowing those areas to be degraded will in turn have ripple effects downstream onto our drinking water supplies and our important fishing and recreation rivers,” Nickum said.
“Colorado’s outdoor economy and quality of life depend on healthy, clean watersheds, and anglers know that starts at the source: the small, unassuming streams, headwaters and wetlands that rescinding the Clean Water Rule puts at risk,” he said.
“President Trump promised to drain the swamp. Instead, this EPA proposal aims to drain our wetlands and pollute our streams,” he said. “Coloradans deserve better.”
In Westminster, city officials for years have been working to improve and expand open space, including lakes and wetlands along the Clear Creek corridor that flows into the South Platte River.
Since 1985, Westminster has tried to protect 87.5 acres of public wetlands just west of Hidden Lake. But the lake and its shoreline are privately owned. Developers now are planning to build new mansions around the north shore of Hidden Lake.
That construction, which requires a federal permit, probably would not be protected against pollution, dredging and filling if Trump and the EPA push through the changes of clean water rules, said Seth Plas in the city engineering office.
“We want to be empowered to ensure that our wetlands and streams are preserved naturally,” Plas said. “We want to ensure they remain unpolluted. That makes the quality of life in our city more desirable. We’re a city that enjoys being outdoors. We enjoy walkable communities, bikeable communities. That’s our big push. It’s in everybody’s best interests in this city to keep these waterways beautiful and unpolluted.”
A wakeboarder enjoys the waves created by the boat that is towing him last month at Hidden Lake in Westminster. A proposal by the EPA would roll back federal protection against pollution and development at such waters.
A bird perches near moss-covered rocks near the spillway last month at Hidden Lake in Westminster, which would lose some federal protection under a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency.