What the EPA’s call for increased stream and wetland protections means for Missouri

The Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement last week that it plans to craft new protections for streams and wetlands could have far-reaching implications, both nationally and for Missouri’s environment and agriculture industry.

The announcement came in direct response to the Trump administration’s environmental policies, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a joint statement with the Department of the Army. It marks the latest development in a long regulatory tug of war over which waterways qualify for protection from development and agricultural activities that pollute or destroy them.

The decades-long fight, punctuated over the years by legal battles, has regularly pitted environmentalists and regulators against farmers, agribusinesses, developers and others. 

Wetlands provide a range of benefits to both wildlife and humans. They act as natural water purifiers and sponges that trap and slowly release water that would otherwise lead to flooding.

In Missouri, where approximately 87% of the state’s original wetlands have been lost since the Revolutionary War, increased rainfall due to climate change means the region is susceptible to an increased frequency of floods, according to the EPA.

In 2015, the Obama administration introduced the Waters of the United States rule, which sought to restore some of the federal government’s authority to limit pollution in major water bodies, which was originally established in the 1972 Clean Water Act. The 2015 rule expanded the definition of a “water of the United States” to include smaller bodies of water that feed into those larger bodies, such as “ephemeral” streams that appear only following rainfall.

Proponents of the new rule were chiefly concerned with the protection of small waterways that naturally purify water on its way to larger rivers and lakes that provide millions of Americans with drinking water. 

Excessive agricultural runoff containing nutrient-rich fertilizer and manure can contaminate drinking water sources such as lakes and private wells. A 2020 report by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources classified 356 lakes and rivers in the state as “impaired,” many of them containing high concentrations of bacteria and algae linked to nutrient-rich runoff.

“They do have functions that are very useful to us,” said Kate Trauth, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri, of streams and wetlands. Her research has focused on water management and how stormwater moves and impacts the environment. “If we have natural processes, then we don’t have to have as much of that built infrastructure.”

Trauth noted the added importance of preserving natural waterways in the era of climate change and the heightened risk of flooding associated with it in Missouri and elsewhere.

“If we can hold some of that water in our wetlands, then we don’t have big flows in other locations,” she said.

The Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule rolled back the Obama-era rule in 2020. Former President Donald Trump called the 2015 rule “very destructive and horrible,” echoing critics’ concerns that the increased federal authority would harm the livelihoods of developers, oil drillers, farmers and others.

In his June 9 announcement, Regan said the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that the Trump EPA’s rollback “is leading to significant environmental degradation.” The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will now work to establish a “durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ … so we can better protect our nation’s waters, foster economic growth, and support thriving communities,” the statement said.

The announcement portends a renewed battle over waterways in heavily agricultural Missouri, where it has already been met with vigorous opposition from at least one powerful agricultural entity that says the new administration is not striking that balance appropriately.

“Here we go again,” said Garrett Hawkins, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, expressing frustration with the EPA’s plan to roll back the Navigable Waters Protection Rule.

He said the 2020 rule had signified a “common-sense approach” and the culmination of years of advocacy and litigation by the Farm Bureau, which had provided farmers and ranchers with certainty about what agricultural practices they could engage in without violating regulations. 

Now, he said, Missouri farmers and ranchers will have to devote renewed time and resources to understanding and complying with whatever new guidelines the EPA produces, as well as potentially pay for permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for agricultural activities that would otherwise be routine.

“Any time there are regulatory changes, that definitely does create a feeling of uncertainty in any potentially impacted entity, whether that’s agriculture or business,” said Chris Wieberg, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Water Protection Program.

Wieberg also said the new uncertainty and the possibility of increased permit requirements will likely be the primary near-term impacts of last week’s announcement, as the ebb and flow of federal regulations has not directly led to dramatic changes to DNR’s regulatory activities.

He added that it’s difficult to assess the environmental impact of the Trump administration’s 2020 policy change in Missouri, given its short lifespan and the reduced development and economic activity in the state due to the pandemic.

The Farm Bureau, the influential insurance company and lobbying group that advocates for the interests of the American agriculture industry, engaged in litigation against the Obama administration’s 2015 rule change and may do so again once the Biden EPA announces its new rule.

“We will be paying very close attention,” Hawkins said.

“[Regan] has pledged not to return to what we call vast federal overreach,” he said. “The announcement shows that their actions speak louder than every word that we’ve heard thus far about working with farmers and ranchers.”

Wieberg views the EPA’s mission as closely aligned with DNR’s.

“[DNR’s mission] is one that we preserve and protect the environment while promoting a healthy economy,” he said. “So they go hand in hand, I think that that’s what [Regan] is trying to say. So I think we’re quite well aligned in that respect. It’s always a challenging balancing act.”

The notion of equilibrium is also a crucial one to Trauth, who noted the negative impacts that water pollution in the Midwest can have on downstream bodies of water as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

There, toxic algal blooms regularly cause health problems in both humans and wildlife as well as millions of dollars in economic losses due to impacts on the fishing and tourism industries. On the Florida coast, for example, fishing industry losses, decreased motel and hotel occupancies and beach cleanup costs associated with algal blooms have numbered in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Where is the dividing line between what is mine and what is ours as a nation?” Trauth said. “We need to have that balance.”

Mark Ossolinski is a graduate student studying public policy reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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