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Two Wisconsin tribes join lawsuit against Trump administration, EPA over water protections

Jun 27, 2020 11:43AM ● By Editor

By Frank Vaisvilas from the Green Bay Press-Gazette - June 26, 2020

Two Wisconsin Native American tribes have joined in a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency on June 22 for rollback of Obama-era water protections.

The Menominee Indian Tribe and the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians have joined with other tribes across the country and environmental advocate groups, such as Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, in a complaint against President Donald Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule that went into effect on Monday.

Environmental advocates have dubbed the new rule as the “dirty water rule” because they say it dramatically decreases the waterways protected under the Clean Water Act.

“For centuries, we’ve been stewards to the land, forest and water, fighting corporations, like the timber barons and mining companies, to stop them from using our natural environment and waterways as sewers,” said Joan Delabreau, Menominee tribal chairwoman, in a statement. “We are confident the courts will agree with us that Trump’s dirty water rule must be stopped.”

The new rule replaces the 2015 Clean Water Rule and advocates say it decreases protections for watersheds, wetlands and streams, opening them up to pollution from industry because it removes those waterways from the definition of waters of the U.S.

The lawsuit implies that much of the Menominee Tribe’s ancestral land could be affected.

“Wetlands, lakes and streams outside of the reservation boundaries are often upstream of the reservation and are overall part of the north-central mixed hardwoods and conifer ecosystem of the Upper Midwest, which is the Menominee’s reservation and ancestral home,” the lawsuit states. “Although Menominee did not retain treaty rights in their ceded lands, since time immemorial the Menominee Tribe has lived, hunted, fished, gathered, farmed and otherwise occupied and used the ceded lands, including lands along and at the mouth of the Menominee River, the Menominee Tribe’s sacred place of origin, and continue to do so today.”

The lawsuit also states that Bad River Band’s reservation encompasses nearly 500 miles of rivers and stream, more than 30,000 acres of wetlands, and 38 miles of Lake Superior shoreline.

The Chippewa also hold rights under the 1842 Treaty to hunt, fish and gather in more than 25,000 square miles in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the complaint states.

“All of the tribes maintain a deep personal, cultural and spiritual relationship to water both within their reservation boundaries, but also throughout their ancestral lands,” the lawsuit states. “No matter the water body size, whether an ocean, lake, river, stream, creek, spring or seep the water is treated with respect and dignity as a living entity.”

Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator, and R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, defended the new rule earlier this year in a news release.

“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses to support the economy and accelerate critical infrastructure projects,” Wheeler said. “After decades of landowners relying on expensive attorneys to determine what water on their land may or may not fall under federal regulation, our new Navigable Waters Protection Rule strikes the proper balance between Washington and the states in managing land and water resources while protecting our nation’s navigable water and it does within the authority Congress provided.”

The news release states that the new rule better defines where federal jurisdiction over waterways begins and ends and gives states and tribes more authority over those waterways.

“Having farmed American land myself for decades, I have personally experienced the confusion regarding implementation of the scope of the Clean Water Act,” James said. “This rule also eliminates federal overreach and … will enable our farmers to continue feeding our nation and the world, and our businesses to continue thriving.”

Janette Brimmer, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the tribes, said the court challenge could last about a year and the November federal elections also could have an effect on the outcome of the case.

Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at

To read the original report and see related stories, follow this link to the Press-Gazette website.

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