Trump Clean Water Act rollback strips protections from many large public lakes

Drinking water source included on the list of now-unprotected waters

Lake Keowee in South Carolina’s upstate region is a popular recreation lake, as well as source of drinking water for the city of Greenville, S.C. (© Jerry Spain)

Popular lakes across the nation — even some drinking water reservoirs like South Carolina’s Lake Keowee — were stripped of protections against pollution by the Trump administration's gutting of the Clean Water Act that has yet to be reversed. For reference, Lake Keowee is a drinking water source for about 400,000 people in South Carolina, including Greenville and Seneca.

Under the previous administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers drastically narrowed the definition of American waterways protected by the federal Clean Water Act. Redefining what are known as the “Waters of the United States,” the EPA excluded millions of acres of wetlands and hundreds of miles of streams from federal protection.

A little-noted provision of the new rule also removes pollution protections from public lakes where people live and play, simply because the lakes were created to provide cooling water for industrial facilities. The rule now classifies these lakes as parts of “waste treatment systems” not covered by the Clean Water Act.

Click to enlarge the Lake Keowee intake map.

That exclusion means that many man-made lakes created to provide cooling water for coal or nuclear-fired power plants are no longer covered by pollution limits and other Clean Water Act protections. These lakes are common in the Southeast, where the number of natural lakes in many states is in the single-digits.

“These lakes are popular recreational destinations for people boating, fishing and swimming—particularly as we head into summer,” said SELC attorney Kelly Moser who leads SELC’s Clean Water Defense Initiative. “Lake Keowee also supplies drinking water to nearby communities. Stripping these lakes of Clean Water Act protection is shockingly irresponsible.”

Last year, SELC challenged this illegal rollback of clean water protections on behalf of several environmental groups in federal court. That lawsuit is still pending, though there is hope that the Biden administration will rescind the unlawful rule and restore federal clean water protections on its own.

Many lakes across the country could be stripped of protections. Belews Lake, a North Carolina lake with a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant on its shore, is one of them. Senior Attorney Frank Holleman says that the Clean Water Act was vital for communities in holding Duke Energy accountable and ensuring clean up when the utility polluted Belews lake with selenium and coal ash. The state of North Carolina used tools under the Clean Water Act to require changes in Duke Energy’s plant after its selenium pollution killed off 17 of Belews Lake’s 20 fish species in the 1970’s and early 80’s.

More recently, “by applying the Clean Water Act to require the utility to stop discharging coal ash into Belews lake, the coal ash pollution in the lake has been greatly reduced,” Holleman said. “That’s a great example of how important the Clean Water Act is to protecting our water resources like the lake.” 

The utility agreed to clean up the coal ash pollution from its Belews Creek plant in a January 2020 settlement after the SELC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Stokes County and state branches of the NAACP and Appalachian Voices.

Holleman noted that heat pollution is also a concern for Belews and similar lakes: “Duke Energy discharges hot water into Belews Lake, and if that heat is not adequately controlled, that affects the health of the lake and the fish in the lake.”

In addition to Belews, other North Carolina lakes — Sutton Lake and Hyco Lake — are also impacted by the rule change, along with Lake Keowee and Lake Monticello Reservoir in South Carolina and Woods Reservoir in Tennessee.

“These lakes and the people and wildlife that rely on them are at risk until federal clean water protections are restored by the court or action by the Biden administration,” said Moser.

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