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Back to the Dirty Old Future

In August 1972, a sign warns that the Potomac Rive is unsafe for water sports due to pollution.

In August 1972, a sign warns that the Potomac River is a health hazard.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

America’s waterways have benefitted enormously from the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, which were established in the early 1970s. We no longer regularly dump raw sewage into our lakes, and rivers no longer burn from chemical pollution. Today, on World Water Day 2017, it’s clear that the Clean Water Act and cleanup programs under the law have succeeded in tackling the worst industrial pollution and that we now have cleaner water to show for it. But there is still more work to be done. “Nonpoint” source pollution (i.e. pollution not coming from a single pipe) from sources like large-scale agriculture and stormwater runoff continues unaddressed. This remaining pollution is the reason that many waterways still don’t meet basic standards of cleanliness.

Now, President Trump has proposed to drastically cut clean water funds, essentially reverting America’s water protection measures back to pre-EPA, pre-1970 standards. Trump has placed essential programs on the chopping block, including initiatives to clean iconic waters, such as Puget Sound, the Chesapeake and San Francisco Bays, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

President Trump has proposed to drastically cut clean water funds, essentially reverting America’s water protection measures back to pre-EPA, pre-1970 standards.

Here are three examples of beloved waterways that would be subject to the president’s sweeping cuts:

Trump’s budget cuts all federal cleanup funds for Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary. Recent studies show that since 2010, water in the bay has gotten cleaner, bay grasses have begun to re-grow and iconic species, such as oysters and blue crabs, have started to recover from devastating population crashes caused by overfishing, pollution and disease. This is largely thanks to anti-pollution measures that would be entirely eliminated under Trump’s plan.

And Chesapeake Bay is just the beginning. Funds for Puget Sound, the second largest estuary in the U.S., are also on the chopping block. The budget includes a 97 percent cut in EPA funding that goes toward toxic pollution cleanup, the construction of wastewater treatment plants and salmon recovery programs. The Puget Sound region is home to 4.4 million people, including 15 Native American tribes, most relying on Puget Sound for food and cultural resources. Puget Sound is also home to thriving tourism and fishing industries; the sound provides habitat for 211 different fish species, including commercially and culturally important salmon, as well as 100 seabird species and 13 types of marine mammal, including endangered orcas.

The recent slew of administration attacks on protections for clean water, clean air and food and worker safety could send America back to a time of unchecked pollution.These pictures show us the situation we could return to if we defang and defund the EPA.
The recent slew of administration attacks on protections for clean water, clean air and food and worker safety could send America back to a time of unchecked pollution. These pictures show us the situation we could return to if we defang and defund the EPA.
U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Plus, Trump’s budget plan eliminates all money for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program that began in 2010 to restore habitat, wildlife populations and water quality across eight Great Lakes states. This could mean trouble for waterways like the Grand Calumet River, a tributary of Lake Michigan that has been plagued for decades by industrial pollution from steel mills and chemical companies.

Trump’s budget plainly reflects the thinking of his administration—clean water is not a national priority or a concern for the federal government. Rather, Trump’s plan thrusts clean water obligations back to state governments where they will languish, as they did in the past.

Historically, state and local governments have dropped the ball when it comes to preserving America’s water. After decades of trying and failing to nudge states into cleaning up horrific pollution in the nation’s waterways, in 1972 Congress decided that clean water was indeed a priority and passed the Clean Water Act. President Nixon signed it into law and our waters started to get clean, in part because of funding provided to the states through various federal programs.

States used some of that money themselves, but a lot also flowed to local governments to try and secure “voluntary” cleanup of big unaddressed pollution sources like agriculture. Unaddressed pollution, such as contamination from large-scale farming operations, is a significant cause of ongoing algae blooms in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, which harm drinking water quality, tourism and fishing. Algae outbreaks are also a growing problem in Puget Sound, interfering with healthy fish and shellfish populations, and they are the primary cause of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Downsizing the EPA puts tremendous pressure on local and state governments to come up with funds they simply don’t have or refuse to spend. Trump’s plan shows an ignorance of and reckless indifference toward Clean Water Act history. The Trump administration’s shunting of financial and regulatory responsibility back to the states under the guise of “cooperative federalism” goes against what history has taught us over and over: Federal budget cuts will likely eliminate nationwide water cleanup efforts altogether.

Welcome back to pre-EPA, pre-Clean Water Act America. Is this what the president means by “making America great again?” For polluters, it certainly is.


ABOUT THIS SERIES

The 45th U.S. president, Donald J. Trump, is bent on gutting environmental protections, and—with a polluter-friendly Congress at his side—he’ll likely do everything he can to dismantle our fundamental right to a healthy environment. The Capitol Watch blog series will shine a light on these political attacks from Congress and the Trump administration, as well as the work of Earthjustice and our allies to hold them accountable.

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