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Map-gate: The Newest Strange Claims About the Clean Water Protection Rule

Jon Devine

Posted August 29, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, The Media and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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Over the last couple days, there has been a barrage of stories about a set of maps that the Environmental Protection Agency had produced, from long-public data maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey, indicating the location of various types of water bodies.  These stories have been fueled by breathless charges of government overreach lodged by some members of Congress and by industry lobby groups opposed to an important effort by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore protections against pollution to small streams and wetlands.  Only in the current House of Representatives and the any-government-is-bad-government press could an expert agency having a map prepared from another expert agency's public data be a reason for hysteria. 

A bunch of the stories I’ve seen go like this – just look at the map of State X and see how it’s covered in colored-in waterways, which some people claim reveals that EPA and the Corps are looking to control all land across the country. 

Unfortunately for these opponents of clean water, the truth is nothing of the sort.  Just read the letters that EPA sent when the agency shared these maps with Congress.  In particular, note two things:

  1. EPA cautions against suggesting that the maps reflect any kind of representation of the waters to be regulated by the proposed rule.  An EPA official posted a blog yesterday explaining this fact further.
  2. EPA stresses that, to make them show up on the map, the colored lines do not depict the actual width of the waterways, and that -- when viewed at a statewide or national scale -- the effect is to misrepresent the degree to which these waters cover the landscape. 

On the latter point, have a look at the two maps below, which we at NRDC generated using the same USGS data on which the EPA maps are based.  The maps show different kinds of streams near Toledo, OH, which of course was recently in the news because a pollution-fueled toxic algae outbreak on Lake Erie forced officials to tell citizens not to drink the water coming into their homes.  The first map shows the entire watershed, and you can see that it appears that the yellow and blue highlighted streams dominate the area.  (It appears even more that way if you look at it from a state perspective or a national scale.)  The second map zooms in on Erie County, and you can see that it’s not actually the case.  Even this zoomed-in version exaggerates the width of many of the streams depicted.

Toledo Watershed.jpg

Erie County part of Toledo watershed.jpg

Despite EPA’s warnings, one of which is borne out by the simple use of the zoom function on a computer screen, some in the media, members of Congress, and interests opposed to restoring protections to vulnerable waters are disregarding both cautions.  This rhetoric is sadly predictable in the debate about this rule, which has seen opponents of the rule routinely mislead the public, government officials, and their own supporters about what the rule would actually do.  Given that history to date, I certainly understand why EPA may not have been eager to put these maps out broadly. 

But, I actually think it's a good thing -- it is indicative of the length (if not the width) of streams that are today in legal limbo, and will help people understand that if they're ignored under the Clean Water Act, how damaging it would be to critical waters (including ones that help supply drinking water for one in three Americans).

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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