I have lived most of my life in cities bisected by rivers and have often used a quiet spot by the river to clear my head and listen for God’s voice. At the Kebar River in Babylon, God spoke to Ezekiel. At the River Jordan, God spoke to the assembled crowds at the baptism of Jesus. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet describes a river that flows from the temple of God, bringing life and healing to the land. Revelation 22 tells us that this river flows from the very throne of God. Like the Holy Spirit, a river can bring restoration and renewal, it can pass with a whisper or a roar, and it can instill peace or awe. A river is a sign of God’s merciful provision through creation.
As followers of the one who was baptized in the Jordan, we are called to care for all of God’s creation. We do this work not to bring about the new creation, but out of faithfulness to our savior, who has already guaranteed that glorious day. Out of gratitude for the love that God shows us, we do what we can to recycle, change our lightbulbs, and consider our carbon footprints. Environmental laws hold us as a community to the high standards we long for, even while we as individuals struggle due to greed, laziness, and apathy.
The Clean Water Act is an important piece of environmental legislation that has equipped the Environmental Protection Agency to protect rivers, lakes, and streams for more than 45 years. This law has been quietly keeping pollution from our waterways for decades, but it became a political flashpoint after a 2015 rule change. The new rule is called Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States.” This rule change expanded the size, scope, and number of bodies of water that are protected by the Clean Water Act.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to begin to scale back the new Clean Water Rule. (He followed that up this week with a proposed 2018 budget that would cut EPA funding by 31 percent.) The question being addressed by both the Clean Water rule and the executive order is this: how large, or interconnected, does a waterway have to be to earn federal protection?
No one but God can own a river.
At the signing, Trump said, “The Clean Water Act says that the EPA can regulate ‘navigable waters’—meaning waters that truly affect interstate commerce. But a few years ago, the EPA decided that ‘navigable waters’ can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer's land, or anyplace else that they decide, right? It was a massive power grab. The EPA’s regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands, and regulations and permits started treating our wonderful small farmers and small businesses as if they were a major industrial polluter. They treated them horribly. Horribly.”
To my mind, the new definition was not a power grab, but rather a response to overwhelming scientific evidence that has helped us see how interdependent our waters are. Various studies and reviews have demonstrated “that streams, regardless of their size or frequency of flow, are connected to downstream waters and strongly influence their function.” Basically, we now recognize that a polluted creek next to a new suburban development, farm, or golf course will not remain a local problem.
Developers, farmers, and golf course owners dislike the rule change because it allows the EPA to regulate how they interact with waterways on land that they own. They are fighting a scientifically based correction of the old definition out of fear that it will affect how they deal with fertilizers, pesticides, or animal waste. They are afraid it might hurt their bottom line. They are afraid something might be taken from them.
But should such fears prevent us from being faithful to our call as God’s stewards? No one but God can own a river. Before we argue about how large a river has to be before it is worth protecting, let us remember that the prophet Isaiah describes God this way: “There the Lord will be our Mighty One. It will be like a place of broad rivers and streams. No galley with oars will ride them, no mighty ship will sail them. For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us.” The Lord is himself an unnavigable river. Let his followers choose to care for small rivers according to his will.