Peter M. Groffman, Ph.D., is a professor with the Environmental Sciences Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and Brooklyn College Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He is also a senior research fellow at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. He has authored more than 300 publications on water quality, greenhouse gases and climate change. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN)No one should want the United States to return to the days of free-flowing industrial pollution, of dead waterways and poisoned birds, when science and society didn’t fully understand how large-scale environmental destruction happens and how to stop it.
And yet, that is essentially where the Trump administration is taking us with newly implemented rules
that dismantle decades of environmental protections. The rules, which went into effect Thursday, will allow all sorts of pollutants to be dumped into our wetlands, seasonal streams, waterways that temporarily flow underground and transient streams that result from rain and snowfall.
These waterways ultimately feed into the larger bodies that provide much of our drinking water. Removing their protection creates a real and urgent danger to our health and environment.
One of the most important things that we have learned in environmental science over the past 50 years is that things are connected. In the 1960s, we were shocked to learn that if we applied DDT to kill mosquitoes on farms and in neighborhoods, it would move from soil and water into little insects and then into little fish and then into bigger fish and then into bald eagles.
And we were further shocked to learn that DDT accumulated in the bodies of bald eagles and thinned the shells of their eggs, leading to massive declines in eagles
and other large (and charismatic) birds.
We used this knowledge to come up with alternative ways of managing mosquitoes, and now the recovery
of bald eagles is a huge success in environmental science and management.
The science of recent decades also taught us that small, sometimes dry streams and wetlands are connected to small permanent streams, which are connected to and affect the quality
of larger streams, rivers, estuaries and the oceans.
The intermittent water bodies targeted by the new rules function like alveoli — the tiny air sacs that make our lungs work. Draining, filling and fertilizing them is analogous to how smoking clogs the alveoli in our lungs leading to emphysema and other respiratory problems.
In fact, the past has already shown that when we destroy or mismanage small intermittent streams and wetlands, the larger streams, rivers and estuaries that they are connected to decline, leading to dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico
and the Chesapeake Bay
The resulting destruction affects everything from drinking water to wild life and the related fishing and sporting industries that many rely on for their livelihoods.
Environmental science progress is not easy, and it is often slow to respond to threats. It was a huge challenge to diagnose the problems with DDT and bald eagles, and it was even harder to propose and implement solutions. With intermittent streams and wetlands, there have been similar challenges to understand the connection to bigger threats, and it has been even harder to implement solutions that balance the interests of farmers, home builders, communities and nature.
But there have been many hard-won, crucial victories
, and our air and water are cleaner because of them. Species are recovering. And environmental waste is handled more safely than it was 50 years ago.
The Trump administration’s decision to revisit a dark past of environmental ignorance and mismanagement is more than troubling; it’s dangerous.
His ongoing efforts to disable existing Waters of the United States (WOTUS) protections are an example of how we can undo progress and cause damage to the environment and ourselves if we ignore science.
And just as surely as a reformed smoker’s lungs would be damaged and at risk for cancer if they took up smoking again, our ecosystems and the people who depend on them are being put at grave risk through the rollback of the WOTUS rules.