Trump Proposal Strips Federal Protections from 34,000 Acres of Chesapeake Wetlands | WYPR

Trump Proposal Strips Federal Protections from 34,000 Acres of Chesapeake Wetlands

Dec 19, 2018

"Delmarva Pothole" wetland on Maryland's Eastern Shore
Credit Tom Pelton

Last week, the Trump Administration announced proposed new regulations that would eliminate federal Clean Water Act protections for 51 percent of wetlands in the U.S. and at least 18 percent of streams.

Republicans at an EPA press conference portrayed the rollback as relief for family farmers. Farmers allegedly faced bureaucratic permitting requirements just to use lowlands with puddles on their own property under wetlands regulations imposed by President Obama in 2015.

Here’s Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas:

”On behalf of the farmers and ranchers and growers that I am privileged to represent, thank you,” Roberts told to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler during the press conference.  “Thank you to the administration. Thanks to the EPA for your leadership.  And thank you for taking this tremendous positive step forward and eliminating onerous and burdensome regulations while protecting our nation’s water supply.”

But this claim of over-regulation was misleading. Obama’s 2015 “Waters of the US” Rule explicitly stated that it did not apply to puddles, and the regulations exempted most farming activity. In reality, the rule had little to no impact on farming.

What the regulations did do was to clarify that real estate developers could not build sprawling subdivisions on farmlands that had scattered wetlands on them, or intermittent streams, without first obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA.

It is these protections for ephemeral streams that flow mostly after rainfall, and wetlands not right next to rivers that Trump, a developer himself, wants to throw out. And, of course, this action would increase the real estate value of farmland if farmers want to sell out to developers. This could be why the farm lobby was willing to act as a camera-friendly frontman for this de-regulation.

Geoff Gisler is Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.  “When you look at who would benefit most from destroying these streams and wetlands, it’s the development industry, it’s the mining industries. It’s heavy industry,” Gisler said.  “Farmers have been exempt under the Clean Water Act. So farmers are not going to be the ones that benefit.”

In the Chesapeake Bay region, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report on Delmarva wetlands last week. The report used aerial radar mapping performed by University of Maryland and federal researchers to document that Trump’s rollback would strip away federal protections from more than 34,000 acres of scattered wetlands called “Delmarva Potholes” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware.

Andrew Baldwin, a wetlands expert at the University of Maryland, said the loss of these wetlands would be damaging to the Chesapeake Bay because the “potholes” serve as habitat for wildlife and filter polluted runoff from poultry farms on the Eastern Shore.

“Delmarva potholes are incredibly important ecosystems,” Baldwin said.  “They are hotspots of biodiversity and ecological function in a landscape otherwise dominated by agricultural fields.”

Although Maryland, Virginia and the other Bay region states have their own state laws protecting some wetlands, these state laws are limited, and generally weaker, than the combination of state and federal protections imposed by the 2015 Obama administration rules, which the Trump Administration wants to eliminate.

Betsy Nicholas is Executive Director Waterkeepers Chesapeake.  “The impact of this proposed rule on the Chesapeake Bay region could be catastrophic,” Nicholas said.  “It would cause really substantial economic damage to our fisheries, our crabbing industry, our shellfish, and our recreation.”

Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers, said: “The dirty water rule that the Trump Administration is proposing would be a disaster for water quality.”

The EPA will taking public comments on the administration’s proposal for 60 days, to be followed by a likely court challenge from environmental groups.