How Trump clean water rule impacts Michigan’s wetlands and streams


Roughly half of the nation’s existing wetlands may lose federal protection under a new water rule approved by the Trump administration. Environmentalists say those worries extend across much of Michigan. (Shutterstock image)

President Donald Trump scored a ringing endorsement for his recent rollback of federal clean water protections from an expected sector: Michigan farmers.

But in an ongoing tug-of-war over government’s regulatory role, environmental advocates warn the rollback threatens water quality in wetlands and streams across the state.

"Clean water is a basic need," Laura Rubin, director of the Healing Our Waters — Great Lakes Coalition, a conservation group with an office in Ann Arbor, told Bridge Magazine.

“I am astounded that you would even think about rolling back regulations when you still have people in Michigan that don’t have clean drinking water. We need more — not less — protection for clean water.”

Laura Rubin

“We need more — not less — protection for clean water,” said Laura Rubin of Healing Our Waters — Great Lakes Coalition (Courtesy photo)

The changes, finalized Jan. 23, scale back the government’s interpretation of which waterways qualify for protection against pollution and development under the nearly half-century-old Clean Water Act, potentially impacting roughly half of the nation’s remaining wetlands. That revision comes on the heels of a state legislative measure approved in 2018 that diminishes environmental protections for Michigan’s shrinking wetlands.

While the Trump rollback is set to take effect within about 60 days, environmental groups vow court challenges, perhaps delaying its implementation.

The rollback fulfills a promise by Trump to overturn an environmental rule put in place in 2015 by President Obama that expanded the bodies of water subject to federal protection.

That rule — which Trump termed “destructive and horrible” — stirred up considerable opposition from farmers, developers and fossil fuel producers, who currently must apply for a permit to discharge pollutants into protected waterways or to fill in wetlands.

The stakes for Michigan in this environmental battle are considerable. Over the decades, the state lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands, which are critical wildlife habitats and fish nursery grounds. Scientists consider wetlands vital to water quality, because they help control flooding, absorb stormwater runoff and help filter out pollutants.

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. Under Obama’s revised rule, that was expanded to include smaller, upstream waterways and wetlands.

Under the Trump 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, converted cropland and farm watering ponds.

Taylor Ridderbusch, Great Lakes organizer for Trout Unlimited, a national conservation advocacy group, estimated the rollback could ease protection for  nearly 20,000 intermittent streams in Michigan. Ridderbusch said these streams — which flow just part of the year — are nonetheless a crucial source of food and important breeding ground for trout and other fish.

“The impact on these streams could be huge,” he said.

“You would be able to plant crops in those stream beds that are intermittent. And if the fertilizer on that is going to go anywhere, it is going to be washed down that system,” he said.

The new rule retains federal protections for large bodies of water, as well as larger rivers and streams that flow into them and wetlands that lie adjacent. But critics of the Trump changes say the new rule goes beyond curtailing the 2015 Obama action by also eliminating protections for smaller headwaters and wetlands that have been in place for decades.

Farmers appreciate the clarity 

Paul Pridgeon farms 4,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Hillsdale County, just north of the Indiana border.

“I’m very much in favor of this revised rule,” he told Bridge Magazine. “Any time I can get a clear regulation, I’m very much in favor of that.”

Pridgeon said he, like many farmers, feared that he might unwittingly break federal law under the former regulations just through normal farming practice.

Paul Pridgeon

Michigan farmer Paul Pridgeon: “I’m very much in favor of this revised rule. Any time I can get a clear regulation, I’m very much in favor of that.” (Courtesy photo)

“If I’ve got a drainage ditch that we’ve dug and we run tile that dumps into a river miles away, do they want to be able to regulate that drainage ditch?”

Laura Campbell of the Michigan Farm Bureau echoed Pridgeon’s viewpoint.

The Farm Bureau, representing some 48,000 farmers in the state, sought to intervene in court cases challenging Obama’s clean water rule in 2015, arguing that it could harm the livelihood of Michigan farmers. 

“Farmers want to know what is regulated and what is not,” Campbell said. 

“They want to protect water quality and they want to do the right thing. They don’t want to engage in normal farming practice and find out all of a sudden they are in violation of federal statute.”

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce also welcomed Trump’s move to scrap the regulations. 

In September, Chief Executive Officer Rich Studley said a repeal of the Obama rule is “long overdue,” labeling it a “classic example of sweeping overreach by non-elected federal bureaucrats. The Michigan Chamber doesn’t object to reasonable regulations based on facts, sound science and the law.”

While the National Association of Home Builders backs the rollback, a spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Michigan said his group has taken no position on the revision. 

Environmentalists rely on science 

But that perspective diverges from findings of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory board, which in December said Trump’s proposed clean water revisions defied established science.

The panel of 41 scientists — including some appointed by Trump — found that the revised set of rules on water pollution “neglects established science” by “failing to acknowledge watershed systems and processes.” The panel also found “no scientific justification” for excluding certain bodies of water from protection under the new regulations.

Rubin, of Healing Our Waters, said the rollback imperils more than drinking water. She argued that it will jeopardize plant and wildlife ecosystems throughout deregulated waterways.

“From an ecological perspective we know that wetlands flow into streams and streams flow into lakes. This will degrade a lot of the key habitat for fish and wildlife that make the state of Michigan such a gem.”

Environmental advocates warn that Michigan faces water quality threats on the state level as well.

In December 2018, just before leaving office, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a measure that analysts say cuts back state regulation of farm and stock ponds and small surrounding wetlands.

Even so, it could have been worse, environmental groups say. The bill Snyder signed represented a considerable retreat from its original terms, which a Department of Environmental Quality analysis noted would have carved out vast exemptions to wetlands protection, allowing unregulated dredging, filling or building on at least 550,000 acres of wetlands and 4,200 of Michigan’s 11,000 lakes.

Snyder also signed a bill opposed by environmentalists that bans state agencies from creating new regulations stricter than Washington’s unless an agency shows a “clear and convincing” need due to “exceptional circumstances.”

Todd Losee

Todd Losee, president of the Michigan Wetlands Association, said he fears the federal rollback could spawn state measures that will shrink wetlands protection. (Courtesy photo)

Todd Losee, a former DEQ wetlands specialist and now president of the Michigan Wetlands Association, a conservation advocacy group, said the Trump rollback likely will have little short-term effect on Michigan wetlands. That’s because Michigan now has regulatory control over wetlands, as one of just two states with authority to issue federal wetland permits.

But Losee said the Trump rule could pave the way for future legislative attempts to erode wetland protection in Michigan. Under Michigan’s current permitting agreement with Washington, the state must match federal wetland guidelines.

“If that federal backstop gets removed, the state will follow suit,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be in two or 10 years until it happens, but it will happen.”


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Mon, 02/03/2020 - 8:19am

We still have Michigan regulations and every time it is taken to court traitor tRUMP looses!!!

Richard scott
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 2:45pm

Sure hope so. Have we who care about wetlands and believe monocrops with high run off of chemicals greening lakes not sustainable?

Richard scott
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 2:45pm

Sure hope so. Have we who care about wetlands and believe monocrops with high run off of chemicals greening lakes not sustainable?

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 8:39am

The GOP - the party of dirty air and dirty, undrinkable water. And going backwards fast.
Vote Blue for blue skies, blue water and stop the destruction of our beautiful Michigan.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 11:17am

Sure Rick. Trump and the GOPs main goal and agenda is to make the air and water as dirty and contaminated as possible. Poisoning us and "the children" is their only reason for existence. What a shallow, misguided load off crap!

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 11:26am

Where have you been for the last 40 years? The GOP and the corporate wing of the Democratic party have done everything in their power to facilitate lax pollution laws in the name of protecting shareholder profits. It's not that their goal is contaminate poor, minority neighborhoods and destroy local ecosystems; those are just "acceptable" side-effects to padding the bottom line

Richard scott
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 2:48pm

No bones about it. Today’s article in Guardian by Reich demonstrates.
And the Green plan, moderate, of AOC is met with disdain by her colleagues.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 12:51pm

"Sure Rick. Trump and the GOPs main goal and agenda is to make the air and water as dirty and contaminated as possible. Poisoning us and "the children" is their only reason for existence." They do so because they only see their own personal short-term financial interests, not a patriotic love of country or state.

James tomlinson
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 3:00pm

Yes baiting libs and poisoning the commons for profit are core principals. Fouled water and air is bad for for next generation. Do not trust gop to govern in the public’s interest

Jeffrey Kless
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 2:22pm

Right! Everyone knows the Repubicans are following in the footsteps of Jesus, make as much money as possible by whatever means possible no matter the consequences to fellow man and the environment

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 11:58am

So again ... why do you stay in Michigan and torchure yourself? CA,WA, OR and alot of the east coast would be more to your liking. There's no stopping anyone from voting with their feet.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 3:00pm

Hey Matt, I stay in Michigan because I'm 75 and the stupid republicans made my pension exempt from taxes. For a couple of years, I actually got money from Michigan by staying here! What a deal! Of course, when it passed I thought it was the stupidest idea in the world.....I was raised when taxes where a patriotic way to support your community, state, country and governments. That's all gone. However, my daughter and son-in-law escaped and live outside San Francisco and love it. P.S. Michigan is now the 12th oldest state in the Union with most educated young people (like my daughter) leaving. And most of these old people don't want to pay taxes because the roads, the schools, the prisons, the mental health services---who needs them. We are on a downward spiral and I see no way out.

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 10:53am

All the anti-Trump comments make me see RED!

Time for Bernie
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 9:09am

As Trump leaves office, now or next year or in four years, expect a scorched earth. We see this first hand in real time with the green ooze off I696, left behind by the almighty business community. Businesses demand deregulation so they can reap greedy exorbitant profits leaving the taxpayers to clean the mess and suffer the detrimental effects to our health and the environment. Our environment and health will continue to suffer irrevocable harm along with the tourism industry if we don't vote the Republicans out of office. Yet they call themselves Pro Life! Disgusting duplicative evil people.

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 10:49am

Please be specific about Trump’s role in the I-696, green ooze leak, besides being a business person. What did he specifically do?

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 9:27am

This article is clearly an opinion piece disguised as a news article. I'm all for cleaner waters, but it should not be accomplished by executive decree like Obama did, since that just leaves it open for reversal by the next administration like we've just seen. Rather is needs to be accomplished through the legislative process like new laws were intended to be addressed by our forefathers. Hopefully the next article on this subject will not be so biased and will actually report on the facts and not just push an agenda.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 11:23am

Our "forefathers" didn't give a fig for the environment or for the health and safety of workers or the general public. Regulations to protect the environment are very clearly not going to be passed when our federal legislature is completely bought by corporate interests, regardless of what the science says or what the public demands. More to the point, just because it doesn't confirm to your business-propagandized brain doesn't mean the piece is an opinion

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 9:33am

Bones, who knows what our forefathers thought about the environment. We do know very well though what they thought about government and law making. Many of our countrymen gave their lives to create and protect the system of government we have today. To attempt to sidestep it is wrong. If you can't even understand that, then it is not surprising that you can't see an opinion piece for what it is either.

Not so sure
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 12:48pm

Michigan has been gerrymandered to favor the GOP. We have a minority legislative rule that is exploiting the will of the majority of Michiganders, issue after issue. Snyder and his ilk passed unpopular legislation in the dark, when no one was looking. They passed law after law trying to limit the rights of voters and their will.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 2:22pm

Thank you Mike - if only the media would only print "the facts, nothing but the facts" (Dick Tracey??), it would make life so much kinder and more pleasant

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 11:51am

Thank God for Trump. Thanks to the wetland overreach under Obama, we have federalized every drop of water that falls from the skies. And the real problem is that the regulators can’t tell you what is OK and what is not. YOU are expected to prove innocence via endless engineering and environmental studies that you are not harming a wetland. The regulators will not tell you in advance.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 2:19pm

Thank you for your educated and sadly correct response.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 7:10pm

Sarcasm? We hope so!

Roger Rayle
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 12:57pm

Gelman/Pall/Danaher discharges its partially treated dioxane purge water and newly created bromate into the Sister Lakes Tributary -- an intermittent stream intermittent stream rerouted to a ditch by man decades ago.  That tributary feeds into Honey Creek which empties into the Huron River upstream from Barton Pond where Ann Arbor and many in adjacent townships get their municipal drinking water. Contaminants that don't seep into the groundwater that is source for nearby homeowner wells along way end up in the river that provides ~85%-90%  of Ann Arbor's municipal water.
Rollbacks on wetland and minor streams protections is really bad news.
Water doesn't adhere to man-made policies and rules. Recent evidence of how newly recognized "forever chemicals" like PFAS and dioxane move through surface and ground water confirms this.

We're each about 2/3 water, act accordingly.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 7:14pm

It appears increasingly likely that Ann Arbor will have to build access to the Detroit Water System - at a cost of, at a minimum, $300 million (more likely $500 million...). So who will pay for that? The business and corporate interests that created the problem or the citizens?
I don't think it requires much thought to figure out who will pay. And who created the problem and kept the profits.

Alex Sagady
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 2:37pm

>>>>“I am astounded that you would even think about rolling back regulations when you still have people in Michigan that don’t have clean drinking water. We need more — not less — protection for clean water.”

The Trump rollback of the jurisdiction waters regulated under
the Clean Water Act is NOT a drinking water issue. Drinking water
raw water supplies for public water systems are NOT obtained from headwater surface sources or ephemeral or temporary streams and wetlands.

Climate Alarm
Tue, 02/11/2020 - 9:44am

"Our lakes are at record levels, our rivers are full and our soils are saturated — they just can't absorb anymore, like a water-soaked sponge," said Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

That meant 920,000 acres of Michigan farmland not planted last year, he said — "and the way it's looking now, it's probably going to be more this coming spring."

A group of mostly Republican state lawmakers in December appealed to Whitmer to declare a state of emergency along the Lake Michigan shoreline, which they said would allow the governor to utilize more financial resources to address erosion and property damage.

Shouldn't lemming Republicans and their ignorant leader Trump do their part at the federal level and listen to scientists, address man-made climate crisis issues, maintain prudent regulations, instead of asking our new governor to solve everything and give out "free" money while her hands are tied behind her back????