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Activists say Clean Water Rule repeal threatens Great Lakes wetlands; drinking water

Sam Corden
Interlochen Public Radio

Last week, the Trump administration revealed it would be repealing the Clean Water Rule, also called the Waters of the United States Act. Now, activists in the Great Lakes region are worried about how these rollbacks will affect the Great Lakes.

The Clean Water Rule defined which wetlands and waterways could be federally regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. When the Obama administration passed the rule in 2015, many farmers and businesses in manufacturing pushed back, calling it an example of government overreach.  

Liz Kirkwood is the executive director of For Love Of Water, an organization based in Traverse City dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes. She says the importance of wetlands in the various Great Lakes ecosystems are largely overlooked.

“Wetlands provide tremendous water quality protections. They act as a purifier for toxins, they obviously support important aquatic habitats for both fish, birds, and other water creatures. They are very important for erosion control and flood mitigation," she said. "They provide that intermediate connection between the water and the land that prevents against storm surges: the perfect nature-based solution so we don’t have to have large seawalls and human-created solutions.”

Because of the important function served by wetlands, Kirkwood says, the lack of regulation could mean contamination and pollution that affects not only the ecosystem, but human communities as well. 

“Many of the wetlands that are currently regulated, and they’ve been regulated for decades now, about 50% would become unregulated with the appeal," she said. "By doing that, this will have a direct impact on public health and the wellbeing of Michigan residents.”

Wetlands aren’t the only issue covered by the Clean Water Rule: waterways and streams were also subject to regulation under the rule.

“There’s an estimate that 65 percent of these headwater streams in some of the Great Lakes states would no longer be protected,” Kirkwood says. “These streams, of course, are sanctuaries and nurseries for both fish and other aquatic organisms, and they also play a vital role in flood prevention and mitigation."

Laura Rubin is the director of the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, a part of the National Wildlife Federation. She says the Great Lakes region, particularly Michigan, has already been impacted by unsafe drinking water.

“If you look across the Great Lakes region, we have a great percentage of drinking water wells that will be contaminated along with some of our major urban water supplies," Rubin said. "Whether we’re allowing less regulation at a rural farm, or in more of an urban area, the impacts of undermining our drinking water are really great.”

Rubin says communities in the Great Lakes could be more greatly impacted by the rollback, because the waterways and wetlands in and around the Great Lakes are so interconnected.

“Many of [Michigan’s] cities and towns are living with unsafe drinking water. Whether that’s from excessive nutrients, or PFAS, or lead," she said. "And it’s very important to us that now is not the time to cut back on clean water protections.”

It’s not a problem unique to Michigan either, Rubin says.

“In Michigan we see this, but look at the western basin of Lake Erie, that’s having some of the worst algal blooms, you hear about the Mississippi River having algal blooms, you hear about PFAS contamination from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Minnesota," Rubin said. "These aren’t isolated incidents.”

Kirkwood says the administration’s decision will shows a lack of understanding of this interconnectedness in the Great Lakes environment.

“It’s another example of where this federal administration is ignoring what the science is saying," Kirkwood said. "People are not taking these positions because they’re arbitrary, they’re taking these positions because it’s backed up with scientific proof. We have a much better understanding of the totality of the ecosystem, and wetlands play this incredibly important role.”

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