A New Wave of Water Protections

A NextGen Blog post by Marianne Swan, SUNY Oneonta.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

A recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in the field of environmental sustainability with particular interest in food and water security. Read her earlier NWNL posts, New York’s Onondaga Lake, Wildfires & Water , Water and the 2020 Election, and Environmental Personhood.

2021 has begun with United States plans to address environmental challenges, including climate change and watershed challenges.  Last month, the United States re-entered the Paris Climate Agreement and released two executive orders creating plans for environmental action. Consequences are significant. For instance, halting construction of Canada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline (which would cross over 40 tributaries of the Missouri River) will protect ecosystem integrity and reduce carbon emissions. As a result of such initiatives, further actions are needed to address changes that will occur with these upcoming shifts toward renewables, as they are expected to increase oil prices and job losses in the fossil fuel industry.

Nebraska pipeline fighters’ sign at their “Energy Barn,” built on Keystone XL’s proposed route

Impact of Appointees

New legislation usually necessitates new appointees to fill various agency roles. A belief in climate science, as held by the new Environmental Protection Agency/EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler, will support the current EPA initiatives to protect human and environmental health and address nation-wide environmental injustices. Michael Regan, elected to be EPA Administrator, is an EPA veteran and a former Vice President of the Environmental Defense Fund/EDF, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Further qualifications include Regan’s recent work with North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, creating the state’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Board and prioritizing investment in communities most affected by pollution. Regan has stated, “Climate change is the most significant challenge humanity faces.”[mfn]Tollefson, Jeff[/mfn]

Executive Orders

Issued on January 20, 2021, President Biden first environmental executive order called for a full review of 100 abandoned environmental protections and re-assessment of whether they should be re-instituted. This executive order also explicitly requires replacement of the deregulatory “Waters of the United States” rule.[mfn]Popovich, Nadja, Albeck-Ripka, Livia, and Pierre-Louis, Kendra[/mfn]

Also being re-examined is the controversial Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which addresses vague wording in the 1972 Clean Water Act regarding protection of initial water sources that drain into and impact American groundwater, temporary streams, wetlands and larger rivers further downstream.  However, on February 5, 2021, the US Senate narrowly voted to preserve the Navigable Waters Protection Rule. Thus, currently, it is uncertain if and when future adjustments may be proposed.[mfn]Brasher, Philip[/mfn]

[Editor’s Note: Read our older post, The Clean Water Act: Analysis for more information.]

A small tributary springing from Ogallala Aquifer springs in Nebraska’s Sandhills Prairie

A separate executive order on climate change, announced on January 27, established a governmental task force that will apply new “siting and permitting processes” to offshore energy developments that will prevent wind energy from disrupting water integrity and biodiversity. Additionally, new oil and gas developments on public lands and waters have been paused to allow for more thorough climate and environmental impact reviews.

New Environmental Goals

By 2030, the current White House administration hopes to meet its goal to conserve 30% of American lands and waterways. Federal agencies are tasked with creating plans outlining how the federal government will work with states, communities and Indigenous Nations to reach this goal. The intent of this increased conservation is to preserve biodiversity and improve both air and water quality. The climate crisis executive order will address environmental justice with the new Justice40 Initiative, which aims to direct 40% of federal investments to disadvantaged communities. A screening tool has been designed for this initiative to help identify towns and cities that would benefit most from environmental cleanups and development of critical clean water infrastructure.[mfn]The White House[/mfn]

Chinook Nation elders blessing a new canoe to be launched in the Columbia River Estuary

The Keystone XL Pipeline

Also in 2021, action has been taken to revoke the permit for Phase Four of the Keystone XL Pipeline, mentioned earlier in this post. This pipeline running from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska, would be laden with tar sands, a carbon-rich, fossil fuel source that requires three times as much water to extract and process than regular oil.[mfn]Union of Concerned Scientists[/mfn] Construction of such pipelines require habitat destruction; and once installed, they run the risk of leaking. Tar sands oil spills have particularly disastrous effects on water and ecosystem health. When this heavy tar is spilled in any water body it sinks rapidly, making removal or containment nearly impossible. In Phase Four the pipeline would be laid over the Ogallala Aquifer, a critical repository of fresh water stretching underground from Nebraska to Texas. Because the Ogallala is unconfined, any oil contamination would immediately spread unseen.

Representing US Indigenous Nations, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana sued the Trump Administration for issuing a permit for Phase Four of the pipeline, claiming a lack of tribal consultation, environmental review, or consideration for treaty rights. President Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline is a major move that signals America is commitment to climate action. To go forward with this tar sands pipeline would directly counteract any reduced carbon emission goals, and would violate the rights of Indigenous Peoples who have had no say in the process.

Anti-Keystone XL signs posted by Cowboy-Indian Alliance, in support of Ponca Tribal lands

Certainly there are Americans concerned about job losses resulting from the Keystone XL cancellation, but jobs it it would offered to US employees were mostly temporary. Additionally, the US would receive no extra oil supplies or fiscal benefits by providing Canada with a shorter route to Texas for international export. Despite the focus by some on concerns over rising gas prices and potential dependence on foreign oil, these new initiatives prioritize our long-term sustainability by shifting away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy.

Work to Be Done

The future of the Navigable Waters Protection Rule is still uncertain. Perhaps its removal would garner more support if federal assistance for water-reduction strategies and technology was allocated to the farmers and industries concerned about effects of increased regulation. To find solutions that would appeal to all parties, the administration’s tough stance on the fossil fuel industry should be balanced by investments and thus new jobs in renewable energy. Fossil fuel workers could then be employed in this new sector to install solar panels, electric vehicle infrastructure and other green energy technologies. As an initial step, the Justice40 Initiative would create additional job opportunities, as well as identify and address the nation’s worst environmental injustices. The recent environmental initiatives are encouraging, yet the reality is that future progress will require patience, compromise and unity.

Wind turbines in Martin County, Texas


Brasher, Philip. “Senate Narrowly Backs Trump WOTUS, OKs Budget Resolution.” AgriPulse, 2021. Accessed March 4th, 2021 by MS. https://www.agri-pulse.com/articles/15280-senate-narrowly-backs-trump-wotus-oks-budget-resolution

“Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” The White House, 2021. Accessed March 1st, 2021 by MS. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/

Popovich, Nadja, Albeck-Ripka, Livia, and Pierre-Louis, Kendra. “The Trump Administration Rolled Back More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List.” The New York Times, 2021. Accessed February 28th, 2021 by MS.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html

Tollefson, Jeff. “Biden’s Pick to Head US Environment Agency Heartens Scientists. Nature, 2020. Accessed February 28th, 2021 by MS. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03621-6

“What Are Tar Sands?” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013. Accessed March 1st, 2021 by MS. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-are-tar-sands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.