Proposed rollback of federal water protection rules would leave wetlands along Chesapeake Bay at risk, report says

    Bird and marsh grass along the Chesapeake Bay. Image via the Virginia Office of Natural Resources.

    President Donald Trump’s administration’s proposed rollbacks to federal clean water regulations would strip some wetlands, as well as headwater streams, in Virginia of federal protections and leave them vulnerable to pollution and real estate development, a report says.

    The new rules would redefine which “waters of the U.S.” are protected under the Clean Water Act and proposes removing isolated wetlands that are not connected to waterways large enough for vessels like boats and ships to pass.

    That would revoke protections for the “Delmarva Potholes,” about 54 square miles, or 34,000 acres, of wetlands on the Delmarva Peninsula, which is part of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, according to a new report from the Environmental integrity Project.

    The wetlands are important to the Chesapeake Bay because they filter pollutants, such as farm runoff, out of the bay. State protections, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, aren’t as strong as the combination of state and federal oversight that currently exists.

    “Clean water is a right, not a luxury,” said Lisa Feldt, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a statement. “Now is not the time for the federal government to weaken efforts to reduce pollution.”

    According to the report, Virginia is one of 13 states with laws that prohibit its own wetland rules from being more restrictive than federal regulations. “That means that a rollback of the federal wetlands regulations would, by definition, mean a rollback of state wetlands protections, too,” the report states.

    “At a time when the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay is finally making progress, the Trump administration is threatening to sink these achievements and endanger drinking water supplies across the region by weakening protections for streams and wetlands,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a news release.

    The proposed rule changes would also leave thousands of miles of streams at risk, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has suggested removing ephemeral streams — those that flow only after rain or snowfall — as a protected category. Such a move would create unnecessary confusion about which streams enjoy protections and which don’t, the group asserts, “and leave an unknown number of streams unprotected.”

    “In the Chesapeake region, streams and tributaries in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna, Potomac, Shenandoah, James and many other rivers, as well as a huge number of wetlands, would not receive protections under the Trump administration’s heartless scheme to repeal the Clean Water Rule,” Betsy Nichols, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said a statement.