Opinion | Susan Knopf: Polis letter says don’t mess with Colorado water
For The Record
Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sent a 27-page letter to the Environmental Protection Agency this week.
It wasn’t a love note. Basically, they said don’t mess with Colorado water.
The EPA, at the direction of President Donald Trump, proposes a revision of the definition of WOTUS, Waters of the United States. Polis and Weiser assert the proposed rule changes will hurt us and our Colorado economy.
Since Trump took office he has been steadily dismantling environmental protections he thinks hurt business. For the record, on March 28, 2017, he signed an executive order that effectively throws out any EPA rules that interfere with the development of energy resources — read oil and gas, drill baby drill.
Then Trump said get rid of the clean air rules for coal-fired power plants. What’s a little mercury with your breakfast? Now he wants to redefine WOTUS in a way that will harm Colorado and other Western states according to comments filed by Polis and Weiser. The letter stated:
“Given its status as a headwaters state, Colorado brings an important perspective to the debate over how to define Waters of the United States. Colorado has within its boundaries the headwaters of four major multistate river systems: the Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande and the Colorado. Many of these headwaters comprise a web of wetlands, ephemeral streams and intermittent streams, which are often connected to traditionally navigable waters. These waters have critical importance to the quality of water used by Colorado and 19 downstream states for drinking, agriculture, recreation, and the health of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.”
The concern is those tributaries, the “web of wetlands, ephemeral and intermittent streams.” Go drill next to one of those and you can wind up polluting drinking water in 19 downstream states. Drill baby drill.
The issue is the proposed change to the definition of WOTUS. In December 2018, the EPA issued a new proposed definition and ephemeral waters are specifically excluded. The proposed rules state, “not ephemeral water features that flow only in direct response to snow or rain events …” Wow, does anybody in the Trump administration know anything about the arid West? Do they know that water supplies are basically dependent on snowpack?
So what? If the U.S. government doesn’t protect our water, we Coloradans can do it ourselves, right? It’s a little complicated. There is an intricate web of federal and state legislation that protects waters. Headwaters, including those often dry, seasonally active stream beds have been protected by the 1972 Clean Water Act, and specific guidance issued in 2008. If the federal government suddenly removes those protections, that leaves a gaping hole. The hole could be big enough to slip in an ill-considered, poorly located drilling operation that could bring deadly consequences. The CWA reserves states’ rights not claimed by the federal government, but those rights could be expensive to assert.
In the big scheme of things, if we Coloradans take on a role formerly reserved for the federal government, we also take on the enforcement. What do you think is easier, suing the federal government or suing the state of Colorado? Yeah, we could be biting off a legal quagmire.
“If enacted, the proposed rule will remove huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction. In doing so, the proposed rule will impose significant burdens upon the state of Colorado’s government.” Polis’ and Weiser’s comments further explained, “The proposed rule shifts the burden onto Colorado to protect federally excluded wetlands and waters, thereby saddling Colorado with the burden of protecting the quality of water received by 19 states that receive Colorado waters.”
Of course it’s not just drinking water, it’s wildlife and aquatic habitat. The comments assert “recreational fishing contributes $2.4 billion in economic output per year and supports over 17,000 jobs in Colorado.” Again, it’s not just Colorado; it’s 19 downstream states.
They say they do like some of the proposed rule changes specifically excluding what lots of folks call “tanks,” depressions on private land, used to retain water for irrigation purposes. That would protect private landowners from regulation and risk of lawsuit.
They also support the rule that land previously converted to cropland is excluded from rule-making so long as it continues to be used for agriculture and does not remain fallow for more than five years. The exemption also extends to land intentionally left fallow for specific conservation reasons.
Those good points aside, the comments state, “The proposed rule … will have negative impacts upon the state of Colorado’s resources, economy and water quality. These impacts are not reflected in the proposed rule’s economic or resource analysis and appear to have not been considered by the federal agencies.” The comments also state the proposed rule change ignores science. What a surprise.
Thank you Gov. Polis and AG Weiser for looking out for our environment, the myriad ways we all earn a living in our beautiful state and use its wealth of natural resources. We are grateful that you are able to balance the value of those resources against other private economic interests. They both thanked state employees and noted the quality of the comments were made possible by various agencies, which worked together effectively, and listened to a range of concerns and developed thoughtful solutions.
We are all going to be faced with an important choice next year. I am so sick of hearing people say they didn’t vote, or they voted for Trump because they didn’t like Hillary. First, it’s our job, each and every one of us, to make voting a priority. Friends don’t let friends skip voting. Second, I don’t care if the Democrats run a rainbow trout. Vote for the trout. At least you know, the trout will protect the water where it swims.
See the online version of this column for links to source material. Susan Knopf is a Summit County resident, and a regular contributor to the Summit Daily News.
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