The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a major rollback to protections for streams and other smaller bodies of water on Thursday, saying it would institute a new rule advocated by farmers and other industry groups.
The new rule would replace the already-repealed Waters of the United States rule (WOTUS), crafted under President Obama, which expanded the types of waterways protected by federal law.
The Obama administration argued smaller bodies of water, even some seasonal ones caused by snowmelt, must be protected in order to stop pollution from reaching larger sources, including those used for drinking water.
Critics argue the changes will eviscerate the protections guaranteed by the Clean Water Act, not just reversing Obama-era protections but setting the U.S even further back.
“This is not just undoing the clean water rule promulgated by the Obama administration. This is going back to the lowest level of protection we’ve seen in the last 50 years,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a call with reporters. “This is a staggering rollback.”
But President Trump touted his plans to roll back the law when speaking over the weekend to a conference of farmers‚ one of the chief adversaries of the previous administration’s policy and a key part of Trump’s base.
Farmers and other groups have argued that law was too far-reaching, requiring grand efforts to protect relatively small bodies of water that run through their property, ultimately subjecting large swaths of land to federal oversight.
Trump’s latest rule, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, will be implemented in the coming weeks and is likely to increase the amount of pesticides and other industrial chemicals that leach into streams, wetlands and underground water sources, leaving much environmental regulation to state and local authorities.
Repealing WOTUS was a campaign promise of Trump’s, who called it “one of the most ridiculous regulations of all” when speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention in Austin, Texas, on Sunday.
“As long as I’m president, government will never micromanage America’s farmers,” he told the crowd.
But the changes announced by the EPA Thursday would dramatically scale back protections, especially for smaller bodies of water that serve as the sources for larger ones.
“It’s like saying you want to keep the bloodstream pure, but you’re not going to protect the capillaries. If you’re not going to protect upstream waters, you won’t protect downstream ones,” said Blan Holman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board reviewed the rule when it was first proposed, writing in a draft report that “aspects of the proposed rule are in conflict with established science … and the objectives of the Clean Water Act.”
Betsy Southerland, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration, called the new rule “scientifically indefensible and socially unjust,” forcing communities to pick up the cost of controlling pollution from miners, oil and gas producers and land developers.
The new rule earned immediate condemnation from some of the nation’s largest environmental groups, some of which have already suggested they will sue.
“This all-out assault on basic safeguards will send our country back to the days when corporate polluters could dump whatever sludge or slime they wished into the streams and wetlands that often connect to the water we drink,” Earthjustice said in a statement, vowing to use every tool available to defend the Clean Water Act.
A diminished federal role would leave a greater share of water supervision to the states, many of which have cut budgets for their environmental regulators over the last decade.
“There is no question that President Trump is making millions of Americans vulnerable to polluted water with this action. This rollback was bought and paid for by the mining industry, and it will have significant consequences for states, who will shoulder a huge burden to protect drinking water from pollution,” Ryan Richards, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement.
But a senior administration official pushed back on the idea that states wouldn’t be reliable water regulations.
“This isn’t the 1970s and ‘80s. The states have robust environmental programs; they value and cherish their resources. This is not a rule that presumes that if the federal government doesn’t regulate, there is no regulation,” the official said in a call with reporters.
“This isn’t about what is an important water body — all water is important.”
Farm and other industry groups have stressed the new rule is needed after the Obama-era policy left confusion over whether ditches, weather-dependent flows and seasonal waters were protected under law.
“Farmers and ranchers care about clean water and preserving the land, which are essential to producing healthy food and fiber and ensuring future generations can do the same. That’s why we support the new clean water rule. It provides clarity and certainty, allowing farmers to understand water regulations without having to hire teams of consultants and lawyers,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement.
But the new law is expected to spur legal challenges, just as previous rollbacks have.
Thursday’s policy is the administration’s second major crack at rethinking water policy. In September the administration scrapped WOTUS, reverting waterway protections back to 1986 standards.
A coalition of 14 states sued, arguing that returning the U.S. to the narrower standard ignores studies showing how small bodies of water, even seasonal snowmelt, connect with and impact larger bodies of water more typically targeted for regulation.
—Updated at 2:22 p.m.