Dangerous Waters: The WOTUS Rule Rollback

Maura McCarthy, Executive Director, Friends of the Wissahickon

On July 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers published a proposal to rescind the current version of the Clean Water Rule, which defines the scope of “waters of the United States” subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. Developed by the Obama administration, “WOTUS” expanded the scope of water bodies — nearly 60 percent of the streams and 20 million acres of wetlands nationwide that could receive federal regulation. July 26 also marked the beginning of the public comment period, which closed on Aug. 28. 

What do these proposed changes mean to the Wissahickon watershed and its neighbors? By clarifying which wetlands and streams were eligible for protection under the Clean Water Act, WOTUS was intended to safeguard the sources of drinking water for 117 million Americans. Put another way, three-quarters of our nation’s public water systems use surface drinking water that’s fed by these sources. 

Surface waterways may be small, but their significance is anything but. Nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians get their drinking water from sources that rely on small streams protected by the Clean Water Rule. In our region, the streams that make up the Wissahickon watershed supply drinking water for 350,000 Philadelphians while also supporting habitat for countless birds, fish and other wildlife and protecting our communities from floods. 

In the two years since the WOTUS rule was enacted, there has been no noticeable water-quality degradation in the Wissahickon watershed, an achievement in and of itself. But the full effects of such protections usually take about three years. This rule is an experiment that most likely won’t be allowed to come to fruition. 

WOTUS acted as a platform for municipalities to come together to create clean-water mandates. Enactment and enforcement “trickle down” through the state, so without federal protection, local initiatives may be interrupted. Any strides will be based on the resources of individual communities. And where they are allowed, poor practices gravitate toward communities with fewer financial and political means. 

What You Can Do

Even though the public comment period has closed, you can still make your voice heard:

  • Be informed. Follow the issue and its impacts on sites such as Clean Water Action-Pennsylvania (www.cleanwateraction.org/states/pennsylvania) and Penn Future (www.pennfuture.org). Learn how your municipality is doing on watershed management. 
  • Call or email your elected officials and tell them to oppose any bill that includes anti-environmental amendments. If you’re already in contact with legislators, add this to your list of agitation, and make it a priority. 
  • Send a message to the EPA. Tell them: Hands off our water. 

Clean water is essential for life and healthy communities. What’s more, wholesale rollback of basic protections and targets for water quality is a terrible economic investment. As Ezra Thrush, campaign manager for Watershed Advocacy, wrote in a recent blog on Penn Future, the WOTUS rule is “a strong, commonsense policy that makes clean water a priority throughout the nation.”

Visit the Friends of the Wissahickon website at www.fow.org.