Trump EPA Unveils Plan to Roll Back Clean Water Rules

At a Glance

  • The proposal would roll back which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act.
  • President Trump campaigned on a promise to remove the Obama-era rules.
  • Environmentalists say the changes could endanger the country’s drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday unveiled a plan to withdraw federal protections for thousands of waterways and wetlands.

The plan would fulfill one of President Donald Trump’s central campaign promises to roll back restrictions put on farming and other projects near streams and wetlands by the Obama administration. 

Environmental groups said the EPA proposal would go beyond the 2015 Obama-era rules to impact how federal agencies enforce the 1972 Clean Water Act, the Associated Press reported.

“The Trump administration has just given a big Christmas gift to polluters,” Bob Irvin, president of the American Rivers environmental nonprofit, told AP. “Americans all over the country are concerned about the safety of their drinking water — this is not the time to be rolling back protections.”

Under the new plan, according to the EPA, the Clean Water Act would only apply to traditional navigable water, tributaries to navigable waters, certain ditches large enough to be used for navigation or subject to tides, lakes and ponds, impoundments and wetlands adjacent to any of those.

The Clean Water Act would no longer apply to “features that only contain water during or in response to rainfall (e.g., ephemeral features); groundwater; many ditches, including most roadside or farm ditches; prior converted cropland; stormwater control features; and waste treatment systems.”

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the Wall Street Journal the new rule will give states more flexibility in managing their streams and wetlands, and it would give landowners clarity about when a project on their property would need permits.

“Property owners will be able to stand on their property and determine what is federal water without having to hire outside professionals,” Wheeler said Tuesday at a ceremony to introduce the new proposal. 

Don Parrish, director of regulatory relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the New York Times, “The Obama administration led with the premise that all water is connected, all water runs downhill, and the federal government could control all water. If they can control the water that falls out of the sky, they control the land that it falls on.”

Other industry groups also praised the rollback effort.

“When you have uncertainty and overreach it makes it incredibly difficult to build American homes,” Gerald Howard, the CEO of the National Association of Home Builders, said of the Obama administration’s interpretation of the water rules.

Environmental groups say the kind of isolated wetlands, rain-fed streams and dry washes that would lose federal protections help buffer communities from the worsening impact of drought, floods and hurricanes under climate change and are vital for wildlife.

Jan Goldman-Carter of the National Wildlife Federation said the move would leave waterways more vulnerable to destruction by developers and farmers or to oil spills, fertilizer runoff and other pollutants. 

The rules now go up for public comment, ahead of any final adoption by the Trump administration. Environmental groups are promising legal challenges, AP reported.

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