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Trump Administration Plans Wetland Protection Rollback


President Trump's administration wants to change the rules determining which waterways in America are protected from pollution. The change would place millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of streams outside current federal environmental regulations. Ron Klataske, a rancher who runs the Kansas Audubon Society, says the reversal would be historic.

RON KLATASKE: This is the greatest rollback of conservation and protection of ecological resources that has occurred ever.

INSKEEP: Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports on what's at stake.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Way, way upstream from your kitchen sink, there are landowners like Robert Alpers, who farms near Prairie Home, Mo. The Obama administration ordered the federal government to regulate the water running off of Alpers' farm and, ultimately, into the water supply.

ROBERT ALPERS: You know, they just said, yeah, every stream is going to end up in the ocean. And you're not going to be able to do your drainage that you wanted. And that's been backed off a lot.

MORRIS: The Trump administration is pushing federal regulation downstream from places like Alpers' farm. It'll do that by narrowing the definition of Waters of the United States - that is streams, wetlands and ponds under federal supervision. The EPA had one public hearing for comments on the new rule. It was this week in a small, old convention center in Kansas City, Kan.

MINDY EISENBERG: So now let me turn to exclusions. The agencies are proposing 11 exclusions from the definition of Waters of the U.S.

MORRIS: The EPA's Mindy Eisenberg says that streams that run only after rainstorms would no longer be federally protected, neither would about half the nation's wetlands or any of the groundwater. Roadside ditches that would've been regulated under the Obama administration rule won't be anymore. Ryan Fisher, who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program, says the rule was written with an eye toward business.

RYAN FISHER: And we are certainly looking to balance protecting federal waters with the need to support national economic interests.

MORRIS: Groups representing miners, oil and gas producers, farmers and construction companies all support the rollback. That's because it would lift federal oversight from vast swaths of land. Engineers running rural public water systems like it too because it would strip a lot of the expense and hassle out of damming some streams. But Geoff Grisler with the Southern Environmental Law Center says profit, not science, is driving the rule change.

GEOFF GRISLER: This is about making it easier for heavy-polluting industries to contaminate our waterways, for people to fill streams and wetlands and to pass their costs and the responsibility for their pollution to all of us who live downstream.

MORRIS: He argues that includes a lot of people who may wind up drinking more tainted water or paying higher bills to have it cleaned. And downstream companies could also be heard.

BRIAN MCGEEHAN: Our business is built on clean water.

MORRIS: Brian McGeehan is a fly fishing outfitter in Montana.

MCGEEHAN: Clean water shouldn't be a pro-business versus pro-conservation issue. A strong Clean Water Act is pro-business.

MORRIS: Environmentalists also say protected wetlands can help prevent flooding. And while the science that upstream pollution tends to wind up downstream is pretty basic - you remember the water cycle you learned about in grade school. This isn't really about science. It's a legal question. Environmentalists and upstream businesses have been litigating the scope of the Clean Water Act since it passed in 1972. And this new rule does nothing to disrupt that cycle. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 28, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
In this story we incorrectly refer to the Audubon of Kansas as the Kansas Audubon Society.
Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.