What is the Clean Water Rule?
On Thursday, September 12, 2019, the Trump administration continued its series of environmental regulatory rollbacks with the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule (also known as the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS). Not to be confused with the Clean Water Act (a federal law passed in 1972 and amended in 1977 and 1987), WOTUS was a regulation meant to clarify which water resources are protected under the Clean Water Act. WOTUS included traditional bodies of water such as navigable waters, interstate waters, and territorial seas, and also brought small streams, groundwater, ephemeral water features, and more wetlands under federal protection.
What Does its Repeal Mean for the Water Treatment Industry?
With the repeal of WOTUS, the scope of federally protected waters will include only the traditional bodies of water listed above. Farms, industrial facilities, and other sources of possible pollutants will no longer require a permit to discharge possibly-contaminated water into smaller streams, certain wetlands, and other bodies of water that are not connected on the surface to navigable waters year-round.
For the water treatment industry, this may result in a small – but noticeable – impact on sales of wastewater treatment products. The treatment of agricultural runoff that includes pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other pollutants will likely decrease, and the management of wastewater in facilities that discharge to unprotected waters will probably become more lax.
However, as critics of the WOTUS repeal have pointed out, the waters that have lost federal protection still have a major impact on a region’s overall water quality, even if they aren’t connected via surface waters. Wetlands function as natural water treatment plants by allowing particulate matter to settle and by gradually removing many types of chemical pollutants. Ephemeral streams often connect to headwaters of major river systems, and all of the unprotected waters are connected to a region’s water system via the groundwater.
If the repeal of WOTUS results in an overall decline in the quality of water sources, including surface water and groundwater, water treatment practices at municipal facilities and by any users of self-supplied water will have to become more aggressive.
How Will the Repeal Impact Other Industries?
The most immediately obvious beneficiaries of the WOTUS repeal are farmers and the meat industries, many of whom had to invest additional money into water treatment and who had to alter their use of certain pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals. With the WOTUS rollback, pesticide and fertilizer use may increase. The repeal has been applauded by industry groups such as the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, both of whom stated that WOTUS impacted their ability to produce meat.
Are Further Environmental Regulation Rollbacks Likely?
Continuing its stance on reducing regulatory burdens on private landowners and businesses, the Trump administration has indicated that it is likely to pursue rollbacks on dozens of other environmental regulations, including those impacting:
- water pollution (regarding the discharge of mercury and other toxins from power plants into public waterways, and guidance allowing states to delay or reject federal projects if they fail to meet local water quality goals)
- air pollution (regarding methane discharges from oil and gas companies; fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks; and the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, which cannot be completed until 2020)
- fossil fuels (regarding oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, coastal waters, national forests, and national parks; and coal leases on public lands)
These possible rollbacks of existing environmental regulations are in addition to an even lengthier list of regulations already repealed or modified by the Trump administration.
Interested in Learning More?
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About the Author:
Emily Park is an industry analyst with The Freedonia Group, and focuses on water treatment, filtration, and agricultural chemical topics. She is based in Madison, Wisconsin.