Researchers spur scientists to play bigger role in future Clean-Water policy

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would seek help from the Department of Justice to begin the process of repealing former President Trump’s changes to the Clean Water Act (CWA) rules. Those changes removed federal environmental protection for over half of wetlands and roughly one-fifth of streams nationwide-leaving important waterbodies vulnerable to development and pollution.

For Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability (Cornell Atkinson) faculty fellows Catherine Kling and Amanda Rodewald, the announcement isn’t just something to celebrate; it’s a call to action. Last year, Kling and Rodewald each co-authored an article in Science magazine laying out their concerns with the Trump rule and its impact. Now, as the EPA works to overturn the rule, Kling says this puts positive pressure on researchers to better demonstrate the risks to public health and wildlife for future Clean Water policy.

“We need to restore belief in science and economic trade-offs,” says Kling, the Tisch University Professor at the Cornell Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and faculty director for Cornell Atkinson.

All legislative acts, like the 1972 Clean Water Act, are subject to rule changes; rules specify how legal acts are implemented. Going back to President Reagan, a cost/benefit analysis has been required as part of any new rule or change. Trump’s rule change removed federal protections for small headwaters, seasonal wetlands, and ephemeral or temporary streams. A cost/benefit analysis was done, but Kling and co-authors say the economics were wrong.

In the Science paper, Kling-whose research focuses on the social costs of water-collaborated with other economists to explain those inconsistencies. The benefits of reducing regulation can be thought of as the avoided costs, while the costs of deregulating are the lost benefits. Unfortunately, when the analysis was undertaken under the Trump team, they ignored the basic tenets of benefit/cost analysis resulting in a clear understatement of the costs of relaxing regulations. Ironically, their analysis is inconsistent with their own guidelines for undertaking economic research.

With funding from Cornell Atkinson, Kling and her team have been doing just this, creating more and better social costs of water models for analysis; and expanding usage into policy circles.

“The Cornell Atkinson funding was invaluable,” Kling says. “We’ve been able to run workshops and engage a research community around this. The workshops led to forming a science advisory group, and we’re now regularly talking and working with the EPA’s office of water.”

In their Science paper, Rodewald and colleagues focused on the key scientific shortcomings of the Trump rule: its inconsistency with the best-available water connectivity science, and disregard of climate change and recommendations from EPA’s own Science Advisory Board (SAB).

“Even in cases where the contributions of a single wetland or stream are small or variable, the collective impacts can be enormous,” says Rodewald, Garvin Professor and Senior Director of Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Rodewald has spent her career clarifying those impacts on interrelated ecosystems to close the gap between science and conservation policy. Rodewald’s research, funded by Cornell Atkinson, is being used to inform land-use conservation decisions in the 2023 Farm Bill; recalibrate sustainable coffee production, and rethink policies around human migration due to environmental change.

“We need to better understand how changes to physical, chemical, and biological connectivity among waterbodies affect water quantity and quality,” Rodewald says. “This is especially critical in the context of climate change, drought, and growing human demand.”

And since the rule review process could take years, Kling and Rodewald argue that filling those knowledge gaps should be a priority for today’s conservation scientists and economists.

“When we do something to protect the environment, there are real costs,” says Kling. “Our work can provide a stronger empirical basis for whatever decisions are made, under any administration.”

Sarah Thompson is a writer for Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability

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