An EPA proposal could remove protections for thousands of miles of waterways and wetlands.

Trump Administration Moves to Roll Back Clean Water Protections

A proposal announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday could spell trouble for thousands of miles of waterways and wetlands, especially those in the country’s parched western states.

Backed by agricultural groups, land developers, and oil and mining lobbyists, the move — which the Trump administration has had in the works for almost two years — would weaken protections set forth by former President Obama under the 2015 Clean Water Rule to exclude “ephemeral streams,” or those that form only after rainfall, along with wetlands that are not adjacent or directly connected to larger bodies of water.

Such a rollback, proponents say, will eliminate unnecessary government oversight and help landowners avoid costly evaluations and delays for activities conducted on private property.

Under the revised “waters of the United States” rule, the EPA’s acting director Andrew Wheeler said protections will “remain strong, while giving states and tribes the certainty to manage their waters in ways that best protect their natural resource and local economies.”

But environmentalists counter that the change, which would remove wetland protections put in place by the late George H.W. Bush, would negatively impact water quality and wildlife. While the Trump administration has claimed not to have done an assessment of how many waterways would be affected by the new rule, data obtained by E&E News suggests that 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands would no longer receive protections. In California, a state long-plagued by water shortages, a review of studies found that up to two-thirds of inland freshwater streams could be impacted.

While the EPA’s proposal will not affect potentially stricter state regulations, critics point out that many states don’t possess the resources to pick up the slack.

“These protections have been around for 50 years,” Jessica Kao, a former EPA attorney, told The Los Angeles Times. “It’s not that easy for a state to just step in and take it over. You need to build up expertise and devote significant resources to it.”

Due to challenges brought across much of the country, the Obama-era rules are only currently in effect in 22 states. The Trump administration’s changes will be open for a 60-day comment period before they become finalized next year.

Also in the news:

• Around the world and across ecosystems, insects are vanishing in alarmingly high numbers. And according to a study published this week in the journal American Entomologist, they’re also vanishing from college textbooks aimed at introductory biology courses. Researchers at North Carolina State University looked at 88 textbooks published between 1907 and 2016, and found that despite making up as much as 70 percent of animal species, references to insects have declined, since the year 2000, by 75 percent compared to books published before 1965. Textbooks published in the past two decades dedicate an average of 5.67 pages to covering them, compared to 32.6 pages in those published before 1920. “Something had to get cut,” says co-author Jennifer Landin. With major advances in cellular biology and genetics, natural history ended up on the chopping block. This underrepresentation, the authors note, reflects a shift also seen in the number of degrees dedicated to the subject. Gwen Pearson, an entomologist and education outreach coordinator who wasn’t involved with the study, attributes the decline to something simpler: our changing relationship with nature. “Children and college-age kids are afraid of being outside,” she says. “They’re afraid of nature because it’s very foreign to them. I mean, inside is where the power outlets are.” (Popular Science)

• The Trump administration has escalated its long-simmering battle against fetal tissue research. Science magazine reports that the University of California, San Francisco received a letter from the National Institutes of Health last week warning the university that its $2 million contract to perform fetal tissue research will be renewed for just 90 days instead of the usual year — and might eventually be canceled altogether. News also surfaced that the controversial research practice had been suspended at the National Cancer Institute and two other labs at NIH, an agency that spends about $100 million of its $37 billion budget on fetal tissue research. Scientists use tissue from aborted fetuses to create “humanized mice”— mice with human-like immune systems. Researchers say those mice are crucial for developing treatments for HIV, Zika, and other illnesses. But opponents argue that it creates demand for body parts of aborted babies, and they’ve rallied against public funding of the research. Although the Trump administration quietly banned purchases of fetal tissue at the NIH and FDA last September, The New York Times reports that UCSF is the first outside research center to be affected by the new policy. (The New York Times)

• Oceans cover roughly 70 percent of the world’s surface, but some 80 percent of the planet’s known species actually live on land. It’s a head-scratcher that scientists have long puzzled over — particularly given that life as we know it presumably began in the primordial soup. Now, researchers with the international collective known as the Deep Carbon Observatory have added another wrinkle: A huge and largely unexplored biosphere containing some 16 to 25 billion tons of micro-organisms — hundreds of times greater than the mass of all humans living on the surface of the earth —  is thriving beneath our feet. The calculations, announced this week at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, are based on nearly 10 years of work by more than 1,000 chemists, geologists, and biologists from 52 countries, and they foretell of a deep, subterranean “Galapagos” made up of lifeforms with few analogs aboveground (or even underwater). These include so-called “zombie bacteria” that have existed for millennia through staggeringly low rates of energy expenditure. “It’s like finding a whole new reservoir of life on Earth,” Karen Lloyd, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, told The Guardian. “So much of life,” she added, “is within the Earth rather than on top of it.” (The GuardianDeep Carbon Observatory)

• A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), titled “Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior,” offers a detailed account of the way Secretary Ryan Zinke and his appointees have moved to undermine environmental research while opening up public lands for oil and gas development. Among the actions cited by the report’s authors: canceling an evaluation of the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining; blocking a planned study to look at safer offshore drilling, and restricting DOI scientists from discussing any results regarding environmental risks. In a blog post, Joel Clement, a senior fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS wrote: “It is a desecration of the concept of public service for Zinke to ignore science aimed to protect the public’s best interest, and an insult to the taxpayers who pay his salary and those of his political colleagues.” But last week, Zinke heralded the impact of those decisions, emphasizing that they had made the U.S. “the number on producer of oil and gas in the world.” (Los Angeles Times)

• And finally: The size of monitored caribou and wild reindeer herds has decreased by 56 percent since the mid- 1990s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card. Their worldwide population has decreased by an estimated 2.6 million in the past two decades. Reindeer and caribou are an important part of the Arctic ecosystem; their grazing can help increase light availability for different plants, and indigenous people depend on the animals for food. Herd sizes can vary widely over time, but the decline may pose a problem for the survival of the species if their numbers stay low. Many factors could be playing a role in the population decline, such as hunting, disease, climate change, and decreased food availability. “The fact that these herds are declining shouldn’t be a shock — they do it all the time,” said ecologist Don Russell, who was the lead author of the Arctic Report Card’s section on caribou and reindeer. “But they’re at such low levels, you start to be concerned… If we return in 10 years and [their numbers] have gone down further, that would be unprecedented.” (Vox)