Assessing challenges in protecting NJ’s water resources

The Obama administration’s initiatives to expand the Clean Water Act are in the process of being reversed by the Trump administration. To learn how that could affect New Jersey, Senior Correspondent Brenda Flanagan sat down with Alyssa Bradley of Clean Water Action.

Flanagan: Jersey has so much water. We have the Atlantic Ocean, we have Delaware as a border on the other side, so rivers, lakes — water means a lot to this state. Let’s talk about one of the federal issues that is looming large here called WOTUS. First of all, what does WOTUS stand for?

Bradley: It stands for Waters of the United States.

Flanagan: What is it?

Bradley: It’s basically a clarification of the Clean Water Act. Under the original law, the waters that were protected were called navigable waters. So, as I am sure you know, when you have a law and when you start implementing it, the language becomes very important. So, what ended up happening was we needed to get clarification on what was a navigable waterway.

Flanagan: So, the little streams that go all the way up.

Bradley: Right. You can’t row a boat on it, or drive a water ski on it, right? So it’s not a navigable waterway.

Flanagan: So, that wasn’t included originally?

Bradley: It wasn’t included originally. I think it was meant to, but with the way the language was written, polluters found a loophole.

Flanagan: So, what happened? I mean WOTUS was a rule that the Obama administration wanted to implement?

Bradley: Yeah, in 2015 the Obama administration decided that small streams, wetlands and head waters should be included without any confusion in the Clean Water Act. They should be protected federally under the Clean Water Act and regulated and overseen by the EPA.

Flanagan: As far upstream as you can go.

Bradley: As far upstream as you can go, all the way to Canada.

Flanagan: So, now the Trump’s EPA administration, Scott Pruitt, is looking to roll this back even before this gets implemented saying that it’s one of the worst examples of federal over-regulation. Critics say good riddance because it just would have extended rules to “puddles.” What do you say to that?

Bradley: What I say is that’s completely untrue.

Flanagan: Why?

Bradley: Because what it does is protect streams and wetlands that flow into other service waters that are already protected under the Clean Water Act. You can’t have 50 streams that are polluted flowing into the Delaware River and say, “Oh, we’re going to protect the Delaware River, but we’re not going to protect the streams that feed it.” That makes absolutely no sense. It’s like treating a symptom and not a disease. You need to have clean water already coming into those waterways because no matter what you do, you’re never going to have a clean Delaware River if every stream in it is polluted.

Flanagan: But, the developers, the ranchers, the farmers are saying you can just follow this thing up to the point where it’s just some moist ground. Is that really an example of protecting waterways or is it regulating to the point where you’re really overreaching?

Bradley: Well, for New Jersey, no. We already have stronger rules that are stipulated under the Clean Water Rule under WOTUS. For the rest of the country, I don’t think so, no, absolutely not. The rule wasn’t meant to suffocate people under the boot of big government. It’s meant to protect drinking water so that we can have good public health and leave people without water insecurity.

Flanagan: After many, many years, in fact people didn’t even expect that the state DEP issued the water supply plan for New Jersey, this master plan about New Jersey’s drinking water. What did you think of the plan?

Bradley: The plan could be more extensive. The DEP has done a really great job of protecting our drinking water so far, but under the Christie administration those protections are there, they’re just not being enforced. And so, with this new rule and creating increased water protections, that’s great, but what we have seen is no enforcement. So what does that mean for New Jersey? We don’t know because we need a governor who is going to actually enforce the rules that are already there.

Flanagan: The watersheds that are divided up in New Jersey, I guess what it did was consolidate a lot of big watersheds instead of a lot of the smaller ones. Is that putting some of these smaller little watersheds at risk?

Bradley: Of course. There’s a catch-22 with any kind of regulation, right? If you paint something with a broad brush, things are going to get missed. But then if you segment everything, it gets too complicated. So, there are watersheds, like the Highlands Watershed, that need to be absolutely protected because it provides drinking water for over 50 percent of the state. So, to consolidate that with a larger watershed doesn’t make any sense. But, then in certain other areas, it might make more sense. So, I think the intent was good, but I think we need to revisit it a little bit.

Flanagan: Now, there’s supposed to be four public hearings?

Bradley: Yes, absolutely.

Flanagan: And you would recommend people go?

Bradley: I would absolutely recommend you go. The thing that makes government work is people getting involved. Legislators don’t know what you want until you tell them. Commissioners don’t know what you want unless you tell them.

Flanagan: And you would be there.

Bradley: I will absolutely be there with bells on.

Flanagan: Alyssa Bradley, Clean Water Action, thank you very much.

Bradley: Thank you.