The Clean Water Act, Part One

I’m going to be honest:  This may never see Part Two.  There is so very much to write about that a lot of very important things will certainly fall by the wayside over the next few weeks and months, and this may be one of them.

But it was a very important happening on Tuesday, and here it is Thursday and there’s been no coverage.  The major media is letting this slide because they have the same problem I do:  Too much happens all at once, and there’s only one front page.

But this is important, and it needs to be remarked on, even if only in passing.

First, the ‘too much’:  All on a single day, President Trump did, said, signed, or announced several vital things at the same moment.  He did this so some of them will pass without having a thorough hearing in the press, and he pulled a fairly extraordinary stunt to make it happen:  He briefed the White House press corps and all major wire services fully on his speech in advance, with the condition that the briefing was to be considered background.  I won’t bore you with the details, but basically it means that if anything from that briefing leaked, the White House could sue and possibly get the names of the source or sources.  And no reporters or mystery aide or official wanted to take that risk.

But the simultaneous multi-story release was not unusual, not for this administration.  So let me just briefly list the high points:

  1. 6am: On national TV, President Trump acknowledged that he believes the media apparatus formerly running President Obama’s public press is helping organize and support protests against the Trump presidency.  There seems to be some truth to this.
  2. Late morning:  Photo op with several university administrators with respect to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and funding.
  3. Photo of Kellyanne Conway, shoes off, seated on Oval Office sofa in an informal position during the above photo op surfaces and takes over Twitter.  Massive distraction; possibly intentional.
  4. Leak of content of replacement Refugee Order.  The press believes this will be signed today and holds the front page.
  5. Three bills are signed into law.  Two are relatively minor initiatives designed to encourage women in science and business; one is the hotly contested Joint Resolution 40, which would normally be a nasty gun control fight — but not today.
  6. Two Executive Orders are signed.  One is on HBCU funding, but it’s fairly toothless.  The other some would say was designed to begin the evisceration of the modern interpretation of the Clean Water Act.
  7. It’s rumored that two more Executive Orders have been signed, one on refugees, and that both will be announced during the President’s speech tonight.  No further details are available.
  8. Major speech before a joint session of Congress.  Eight major announcements, including one on his new VOICE initiative — which in addition to other things publicizes crimes committed by foreign nationals on American soil.  VOICE is the big story all day Wednesday.
  9. Full lid.  No VOICE or Refugee Order is published; no formal announcement of either is released.  The press is caught completely off guard.

Prior to the big speech, almost no major positive actions have been taken by the administration for about two weeks.  The three bills have been sitting in limbo, waiting for a suitable moment.  Congress was in recess for a week and two major party conventions were held, but the office of the President did very little.  And then, all of a sudden, everything gets done all at once except for the two major things we were all led to expect.  (I think this may be what my colleagues on the Sports Desk would call a Statue Of Liberty Play, but I’m not sure.  Sportsball.)

So it’s reasonable for the press to fall a little behind.

Now, I’m not going to waste any more time than necessary on the distraction issues.  Most are fairly toothless, shameless pandering to interest groups and the like.  None is at all a bad thing, mind, not even Obama.  And I’m not going to talk about HJR 40 except to say that it removed a gun control law that the courts would have eventually struck down anyway — unreasonable abuse of privacy.  Even Ginsburg would have opposed it.

Instead, let me explain a little about the Clean Water Act and how the new Executive Order is going to change things.

The Act itself was passed in 1948, then completely rebuilt in ’72.  It’s been amended several times, each time adding more power and breadth of scope to the EPA and other federal agencies and programs.  At present it’s massive, about the size of a doorstop fantasy series and a lot more compelling — that is, if you’re a business or into real estate development.  Because the Clean Water Act keeps people from discharging sewage, waste, or other pollution into rivers and lakes.

Not long ago the President signed a law repealing the Stream Protection Rule, which had been enacted in the last days of the Obama Administration to prevent a form of coal mining which basically involves blasting the tops off mountains and dumping the untreated rubble in nearby valleys so coal beds can be reached more easily.  Science told us all sorts of horrible things that would happen as a result, but who needs science?  The Rule that got passed had been whittled down to almost nothing by politicians, but it had been the most powerful restriction that could be imposed in eight years of a Congress that owed big debts to coal mining interests.  It wasn’t meaningless, but it was highly unpopular and the repeal was a given, especially considering how influential Senator “Coal Joe” Manchin (Dem. W.V) happens to be at present.

Tuesday’s Order calls for an examination of the definitions included in the Clean Water Act, particularly the one on “Navigable Rivers”.  Present regulation under the CWA protects transient bodies of water, including seasonal waterways (quite common in both California and West Virginia, to take two examples).  This also provides some of the basis for several recent prosecutions for diverting river water for irrigation, for digging, filling in, or exploiting temporary ponds on private land, and in one case for keeping rain barrels.

If there ever is a Part Two, I hope to get into more detail about these events, but there simply isn’t time.  Suffice it to say that so much of the voting public sees this level of enforcement as onerous, there’s unlikely to be widespread discontent over less EPA regulation.  The likely problem, however, is that truly vast amounts of runoff by both industry and agriculture are about to be legalized, and some unpleasant consequences of this are quite likely as a result.

I’m going to mention three very active areas which will likely be impacted by the ordered revision of regulation.  There’s the coal-mining and steelmaking parts of the Rust Belt, particularly central Pennsylvania and West Virginia, areas that have only just finished cleaning up local streams and rivers after a century of uncontrolled waste.  There’s also Florida, which people tend to forget is one of the biggest cattle areas in the country; agricultural discharge has been causing serious problems for fishing and tourism (not to mention wildlife) along the Gulf Coast recently, and given the transient nature of a lot of Florida’s waterways that’s about to get a lot worse.

And then there’s the Lake Tulare region of California, about which whole books could be written.  It used to be a vast lake with thousands of square miles of tributaries, supported by both seasonal rains (the only reliable water one sees in southern California) and a very few standing waterways.  In the ranching days, earthen dikes were built to support cattle and horses and the seasonal water was retained and used throughout the year.  But when the vast vegetable growers moved in after the Civil War, bit by bit the lake and its tributaries were drained and diverted for irrigation purposes.  The lake is now dry farmland.  And, as a direct result of the massive water diversion both for agriculture and to supply the huge population of Los Angeles, southern California is now in a near-continuous state of drought which alternates on rare occasions with catastrophic flooding.

The Clean Water Act was designed to protect areas like these from unreasonable damage by uncaring industry.  The vast grower combines of California, the coal lobby of the Rust Belt, cattle and fruit interests in Florida, steel and manufacturing interests all across the country — everyone who wants to make a buck without worrying about what’s downstream is highly motivated to remove those protections.  And right now they have a sympathetic president and Congress, and fisheries and tourism have yet to mobilize against them.

And lest we forget, there is a valid argument that industry can present:  The main reason American manufacturing and agricultural jobs have moved overseas is because they were regulated out of existence.  Other countries permit vast pollution, to the point where even now there are days in Beijing, for example, where you can’t go outside without an air bottle.  And given the cost of disposal, it’s difficult for businesses based in a restrictive America to survive, much less compete.  This is not business being either evil or greedy, mind you; it’s simple economic law.

As always, these issues rest ultimately in the hands of the American voter, but let us not under-rate the power of the American consumer.  The success of the organic farming movement has shown us that customers are sometimes willing to pay more for a product that doesn’t use some of the nastier pesticides, to take just one example.  We can demand cars and refrigerators that were manufactured pollution-free if we want, and given enough demand — and a willingness to pay — there is no doubt but that companies will act to fill that demand.

But if we fail to act, I can guarantee that Pennsylvania and West Virginia will start getting sludgy again, the Caribbean will grow a rich green fur west of Florida, and California… well, that was already ruined before we got to this point.  It is of course within the power of the citizens of each of these states to act to control their own destinies — but, judging by the tale of Lake Tulare, and by the union workers of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, even a state that’s two-thirds Democrat will probably choose local jobs over the environment.

Sometimes it really really hurts to love my country.  But I’m learning to cope.  We get our drinking water delivered now.

Update:  Chris Mooney wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post that should appear in tomorrow’s paper on this subject.  Interesting reading, and it references this letter from science and professional organizations.

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