Water We Doing?

by Marlowe Starling

April 15, 2019

The EPA could repeal the Clean Water Act, thereby opening up millions of acres of wetlands to development and commerce.

David Kaplan and Heather Obara at the “Clean Water Rule Roundtable” on April 3. Photo by Chris King.

Each day, hundreds of students walk past the Phelps Lab, a squat brick building on Museum Road. But one sunny afternoon last week, less than 10 stopped by a room scarcely bigger than an on-campus double dorm to hear three speakers discuss an imminent threat to the future of Florida’s freshwater ecosystems.

Last Wednesday, the UF Wetlands Center hosted a “Clean Water Rule Roundtable” to discuss the importance of the Clean Water Act to Florida, said Jenna Stevens, who organized the event for Environment Florida a non-profit policy group.

Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act currently protects wetlands and waterways from development and pollution by restricting, for example, runoff from chemicals like pesticides and herbicides that contaminate vital sources of drinking water. Under President Obama, in 2015 the Clean Water Rule expanded these protections from large bodies of water, like lakes, to streams, tributaries and wetlands.

Then, last December, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corp of Engineers announced a new proposal that would roll back many of these protections. If approved, the proposal would modify the agencies’ definitions of the “waters of the U.S.,” thereby opening up thousands of miles of waterways and millions of acres of wetlands to development and commerce. This pending repeal means certain streams, headwaters — the uphill sources of water — and isolated wetlands will no longer be protected.

Environmentalists and advocacy groups have dubbed this proposal the “Dirty Water Rule” because of the impacts it will have on waterways, notably pollution and habitat destruction. And in Florida, this new rule could threaten our drinking water, since wetlands naturally filter pollutants like nitrogen as they recharge the aquifer, our main source of drinking water.

Environment Florida, as an organization that seeks to raise awareness about Florida’s environmental issues, hoped to bring attention to this through the roundtable.

“If we’re not protecting wetlands and streams that recharge that aquifer, then we’re not only not protecting our springs, but we’re not protecting our drinking water here in Florida,” said Heather Obara, an associate director at the Florida Springs Institute, a science-based organization that focuses on conservation education.

“I think it’s very important that people do know that if our water is polluted, this is why,” Tidd said. “We as citizens have a voice collectively, and we have a right to stand up and fight for what we want.”

The feeling of urgency at the roundtable was palpable, in part because the window for organizations, businesses and individuals to submit concerns about the “Dirty Water Rule” to the EPA closes April 15.

The EPA reads every individual comment submitted during the 60-day comment period, so the more comments people submit, the more aware the EPA will be of Americans’ concern, Stevens said.

David Kaplan, an environmental engineering professor at UF, pointed out during the roundtable that the 2015 protections actually economically benefit Florida. The United States generates an estimated $700 billion a year from isolated wetlands in economic services to humans, such as fishing and tubing, and $15.7 trillion a year from all headwater streams, Kaplan said, based on a Society for Freshwater Science WOTUS Comment Letter Guide published on April 1.

Kaplan informed attendees of the water wetlands and watersheds seminars held in Phelps Lab room 101 every Wednesday from 11:45 a.m. to 12:35 p.m., for which students can register to earn one credit. Each seminar focuses on a different topic, such as the efficiency of Everglades restoration, and is open to the public.

“We do have power,” Obara said. “The climate right now for speaking out is very good, and I encourage people to get involved. I think it is with the youth that we will see change.”

At the end of the roundtable, Holly Tidd, a 21-year-old UF political science senior and intern for Environment Florida, passed around a laptop for attendees to submit their comments to the EPA online. Tidd grew up in St. Petersburg, where she developed an appreciation for the natural environment and wildlife that fuels her motivation to lead a renewable energy campaign at UF.

Tidd noted the “Dirty Water Rule” affects more than just water. “To take away the protection of our already clean water is just kind of ridiculous in my point of view,” she said. “It’s only going to make it hard for us and for businesses to get our clean water in the first place.”

She said that most students and even business owners themselves do not even know about these rollbacks to the Clean Water Act, which she assumes is because of a lack media coverage.

“It is not as publicized, and I think it’s very important that people do know that if our water is polluted, this is why,” Tidd said. “We as citizens have a voice collectively, and we have a right to stand up and fight for what we want.” •

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