Ask Eartha: New water protection rollbacks |

Ask Eartha: New water protection rollbacks

Chris Refer
High Country Conservation Center
A section of the Blue River as seen Jan. 7 near the Gold Hill Trailhead in Breckenridge.
Liz Copan /

Dear Eartha,
I heard about the new rollback on water protection in the U.S. Can you help me understand what this means and if there’s anything we can do about it?

On Jan. 23, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans for a new definition of “waters of the United States.” The plan is known as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule and replaces the 2015 Clean Water Rule put in place under the Obama administration. That was repealed last fall, and now the Navigable Waters Protection Rule defines the scope of water protection in the U.S. under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

A little history lesson

The new rule goes beyond simply reversing the 2015 one. It removes certain waterways covered under the original Clean Water Act, which aims to protect large bodies of water (think Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, the Great Lakes), navigable rivers (think larger rivers like the Colorado), smaller headwaters (like those of the Blue River) and wetlands that are adjacent to large bodies of water.

It originally was aimed at creating waterways that are safe for swimming and fishing, and acknowledged that municipalities and industries were the worst offenders, regularly dumping pollutants directly into waterways. By the 1990s the EPA had largely put an end to this direct pollution and shifted its focus to sectors with indirect effects. This means runoff and erosion from mines, oil and natural gas fields, farms, logging and construction sites. The EPA reported in 2000 that these indirect activities were the top causes for 40% of waterways remaining unsafe. Since then, scientists agree that wetlands play a key role in filtering pollutants.

Fast forward to 2015, when protection was extended to groundwater, all wetlands, seasonal streams and “ephemeral” streams (those that only flow after rainfall). Those waterways, as well as small headwater streams that have been protected since the 1970s, will now be removed. That equates to about 18% of American stream and rivers miles and 51% of wetlands, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Hydrography Dataset. In Colorado, such streams make up to 62% of surface drinking water and an even higher 69% in Summit County.

What it means for the environment

The new rule means that the government is placing economic interests before the environment and the public. Mines, factories, loggers, giant farms and developers are given the opportunity to pollute at the expense of the planet’s health. But what are the consequences, if any? The water cycle demonstrates that water everywhere is connected. If we allow pollutants to be used freely near, or even dumped outright into, any waterway, those pollutants will travel around. Consider the state of Colorado. Water from our mountains travels to 19 other states, making it arguably one of the most vital states in maintaining clean water. Our major rivers (the Platte, Colorado, Arkansas and Rio Grande) and their major tributaries (think Blue, Gunnison and Eagle rivers) are protected, while the sources of those tributaries are not.  

And even though the EPA has acknowledged the vital importance of wetlands, they’ll no longer be protected. They are commonly dredged and filled for development. In our state alone, wetlands comprise around 1 million acres and have decreased in size by about half in the past two centuries, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

What can you do?

You can call your local elected officials and ask for urgent action. Aside from that, strive to prevent pollution of our waterways as much as possible. Refuse to use pesticides and fertilizers on your garden, landscaping and lawn. Then lead by example and help instill a horticultural mindset that doesn’t revolve around these pollutants. The benefits go beyond clean water, too.

You should also always responsibly dispose of household hazardous waste (chemicals, paints, stains, cleaning products) and pharmaceuticals — services that are free to Summit County residents. These should never be dumped down a drain or toilet.

You can also encourage those around you to follow in your footsteps. Vote with your dollars, and vote in every election.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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