Memo to Trump: Water Runs Downhill

Steigerwald Creek, Columbia Gorge. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It seems a sure bet that if someone told Donald Trump water runs downhill he would immediately claim it was “fake news” since, after all, when he turns on the gold taps in his Fifth Avenue penthouse atop Trump Tower, water comes gushing out. And you know, it’s a long ways up — 58 stories, although he claims it has 68 — so how does it get up there if water runs downhill? But for the rest of us who live in the real world, water definitely runs downhill. Which is why the latest move by Trump’s corrupt administration to scrap the Obama-era “Waters of the United States” rule last week should concern anyone who lives downstream — which is basically everyone.

The waters of the United States rule is appurtenant to the Clean Water Act, a foundational law passed during the Nixon administration in 1972 to combat the unregulated pollution of rivers and lakes. Given that a number of rivers actually caught fire due to flammable pollutants on the surface, the law’s intent to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters” makes great sense.

But that’s not the way Trump sees it. Trump sees it as his holy mission to overturn, gut, scrap and nullify anything and everything done during the Obama administration, including the Waters of the U.S. rule, which he called “destructive and horrible.”

Now one might credibly wonder how the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule that’s trying to protect the nation’s water quality could be deemed “destructive and horrible” in anyone’s definition. Moreover, it has long been established that it is far easier, cheaper and safer for society to keep pollutants out of the water in the first place instead of trying to remove them through extremely costly water treatment plants after the fact.

But apparently the self-described “very stable genius” in the Oval Office doesn’t see it that way, so he instructed Andrew Wheeler, the former coal industry lobbyist turned Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to get rid of the rule and roll regulation back to the 1986 standards. Given the environmental crisis now engulfing the planet, it really doesn’t make much sense to go backwards 33 years in regulating pollution of the nation’s water supply. Then again, Wheeler, like Trump, is a climate change denier who criticizes regulation of greenhouse gases and stumped for subsidies to keep dirty, coal-fired power plants running.

One of the issues most targeted by these despoilers is that the rule included protection for wetlands and intermittent waters. Anyone with a marginal understanding of science knows that wetlands perform an incredibly important function as natural filters to remove pollutants. Some plants, such as duckweed, are very efficient at pulling heavy metals from water, leaving it much cleaner to recharge groundwater or flow downhill as surface water. And it all comes courtesy of good old Mother Nature for free.

But as noted in the Washington Post: “Americans drained about half of the 220 million acres of wetlands in the contiguous United States between the 1780s and 1980s, most of it to expand farmland.” And there’s the rub. Despite centuries of destroying wetlands and their abundant wildlife and vital water-cleaning function, apparently those in the White House “swamp” didn’t learn a thing and want to continue the destruction.

Trump’s latest environmental travesty will not take place without facing ever-increasing court challenges. We can all hope, for the benefit of present and future generations, that those challenges succeed. Although Trump doesn’t grasp it, water does run downhill — and all of us live downstream.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.