By: Paul J. Sniadecki, MLSA Board Director

A rollback of Federal Clean Water protections has been implemented. The changes, finalized on Jan. 23, 2020 scale back the interpretation of which waterways qualify for protection against pollution and development under the nearly half-century-old Clean Water Act (CWA-1972). Potentially about half of the nation’s remaining wetlands could be impacted. The federal revision comes subsequent to a Michigan lame-duck legislative measure approved in 2018 that lessens environmental protections for Michigan’s wetlands.

The 1972 Clean Water Act authorized the federal government to regulate the discharge of pollutants into “navigable waters,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under a 2015 revised Federal EPA Rule, that was expanded to include smaller, upstream waterways and wetlands.

While the current rollback is set to take effect within about 60 days, environmental groups vow court challenges, perhaps delaying its implementation. On the other hand, groups like the Michigan Farm Bureau and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce welcome the rollback because it helps provide clarity on what is regulated and what requires a permit.

This environmental struggle could impact Michigan. Over the decades, the state has lost many of its wetlands, which are wildlife habitats and fish nursery areas. Research shows wetlands are vital to lake and stream water quality, because they help control flooding, absorb storm water runoff, and help filter out pollutants.

Under the implemented revisions, temporary bodies of water, those that form only after rainfall or flow only part of the year and dry up at other times, are now exempt from federal protections. This exception also applies to waste treatment systems, groundwater, certain cropland and farm watering ponds.

Some conservation experts anticipate the rollback will have little short-term effect on Michigan wetlands. The reason being Michigan now has regulatory control over wetlands, as one of only two states with authority to issue federal wetland permits. However, the longer-term impact remains unknown. MLSA will provide updates on this matter as more information becomes available. 

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