Report: Water protection rollbacks not based on solid science

A small wetland at the Soland Waterfowl Production Area.
A small wetland at the Soland Waterfowl Production Area in western Minnesota in 2018.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2018

A new report by a group of environmental economists says the Trump administration used flawed methodology to justify rolling back federal protections for wetlands and streams.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers repealed an Obama-era regulation that expanded federal protections for streams and wetlands.

The rule was controversial among farmers and developers, who thought it was overreach by the federal government and would limit how they could use their land.

The Trump administration’s replacement, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, changed that definition again, stripping federal protection from isolated wetlands and intermittent streams that flow only after rainfall or snowmelt or dry up at certain times of the year.

The administration’s cost-benefit analysis found that the rule change would result in significant cost savings.

But in a report released Tuesday, the independent External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee argues that the federal agencies underestimated the benefits of water quality protections.

Even “isolated” waterways connect to larger watersheds and provide many benefits, including wildlife habitat, flood mitigation and filtering pollutants, said Bonnie Keeler, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and one of the report’s authors.

"We know a lot about how these different water features are connected,” she said. “And we know that what you do in one area of the landscape affects what happens downstream.”

Keeler said federal agencies also overlooked research showing the costs of not protecting water quality.

"If we do end up with dredging or filling of wetlands, if we do end up with additional pollutants discharged into waterways, there's a cost to those impacts,” she said. “It can affect people's health. It can affect recreation. These are, in some cases, really culturally significant waterways. And they're not considering that full suite of potential costs when they did their calculations.”

The federal agencies assumed that states would step up to protect smaller waterways that lose federal protection, but that’s not likely to be the case, Keeler said. In Minnesota, state law already protects wetlands and most other waterways.

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to undo many of the environmental rollbacks enacted by the Trump administration.

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