EPA issues clean water rule overturning Trump administration changes

Saltwater Wetland, Waquoit Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, Mass.

Photo: Ariana Sutton-Grier, CC BY-ND

The Biden administration on Friday enacted a rule defining what types of waterways in the United States receive federal water quality protections under the Clean Water Act of 1972, overturning a Trump-era rule the federal courts have refused and the environmental groups have argued to have left waterways open to pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Army said the revised rule is based on definitions that were in place prior to 2015, when the Obama administration attempted to expand federal protections.

Officials said the rule provides a more permanent definition of “United States waters,” which receive federal protection and restore protection to hundreds of thousands of rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands and other bodies of water. Federally protected waters qualify for state programs focused on maintaining water quality and preventing oil spills, among other things.

Environmental groups have long argued that efforts to relax federal water regulations would severely damage the country’s safe sources of drinking water. Agribusinesses, oil and gas producers and real estate developers have criticized such regulations as overbearing and onerous on businesses, and many supported the Trump administration’s 2020 rule, which sought to dismantle safeguards.

Michael Regan, the EPA Administrator, said in a statement the agency is working to deliver “a lasting definition of WOTUS that protects our nation’s waters, strengthens economic opportunity, and safeguards people’s health while benefitting farmers, ranchers and… offers landowners more securityā€¯.

The EPA rule applies federal protections to wetlands, tributaries, and other bodies of water that have a fixed connection to navigable waters or where wetlands are relatively permanent. The rule also doesn’t mandate a specific distance when neighboring wetlands are protected, as officials said various factors can influence whether the wetland and waterway can influence water quality from one another.

The rule includes amendments that clarify certain qualifications for bodies of water that are exempt from regulation, such as wetlands converted to farmland before 1985, waste treatment centers and artificially irrigated areas.

The agency said the rule’s definition of waterways will reduce uncertainty from changing regulatory definitions that “have harmed communities and our nation’s waters.”

“While the nation still has work to do to fully protect key waters, it’s encouraging to see the country taking a step in the right direction to protect the waters we need for everyone’s health and the environment.” said federal water policy director Jon Devine for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The rule comes ahead of a Supreme Court ruling set for next year that could question the EPA’s ability to protect wetlands and other bodies of water and overturn Friday’s revisions. The case, titled Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, challenges the government’s finding that a wetland on private property in Idaho is protected under the Clean Water Act.

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