WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Thursday ended federal protection for many of the nation's millions of miles of streams, arroyos and wetlands, a sweeping environmental rollback that could leave the waterways more vulnerable to pollution from development, industry and farms.
The policy change, signed by heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, narrows the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the half-century-old Clean Water Act.
Since his first weeks in office, President Donald Trump has targeted environmental and public health regulations that he says imposed unnecessary burdens on business.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued the following statement on the move:
“Iowa farmers, families, and property owners will benefit substantially from the redefined ‘Waters of the United States’ (WOTUS) rule. This new rule provides clarity, predictability, and consistency while also balancing environmental protections with the rights and interests of states like ours. Under the Obama administration, Iowa suffered from uncertainty, excessive regulation and federal overreach. Those days are gone. I appreciate President Trump and his administration for fulfilling another promise made by taking the necessary steps to rewrite WOTUS.”
The change to the clean water rule had long been sought by builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others. But environmental groups and public-health advocates say the rollback will allow businesses to dump pollutants into newly federally unprotected waterways and fill in some wetlands, threatening public water supplies downstream and harming wildlife and habitat.
Minnesota Congressman Jim Hagdorn voiced his support for the change:
“I am pleased the EPA has issued a proposed rule that promotes clean water and the environment, while also curbing federal overreach that stifles economic development and infringes upon the property rights of individuals and businesses. This is one of the most significant regulatory issues facing southern Minnesota’s farmers, businesses, governmental entities and residents, and I am pleased the Trump administration has proposed a federal regulation that conforms with the intent of Congress. Rescinding the Obama administration’s unlawful and burdensome proposed WOTUS rule, and replacing it with this commonsense proposed regulation, represents a huge step forward for all Americans.”
Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator also applauded the President’s decision:
“President Trump deserves credit for following through on his promise to repeal this Obama-era rule that would have defined 97 percent of Iowa as a waterway. Giving the federal government the power to regulate nearly all of Iowa would have been an economic catastrophe. My neighbors who farm in Butler County shouldn’t have to get permission from bureaucrats in Washington to move soil on their own land. This was just another example of out-of-touch and ill-conceived government overreach. This new rule will help keep our water and land clean without destroying Iowa’s small businesses and family farming operations.”
EPA head Andrew Wheeler told reporters that states were still free to step in with state protections of newly vulnerable waterways if they chose.
“Our rule protects the environment and our waterways while respecting the rights of states and property owners,” Wheeler said. The rollback of the clean-water enforcement “strikes the proper balance between Washington, D.C. and the states,” he said.
Brett Hartl, a government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity conservation advocacy group, called the changes “a sickening gift to polluters.”
The administration's action “will allow wetlands, streams and rivers across a vast stretch of America to be obliterated with pollution,” Hartl said, contending the rollback would speed extinction for dozens of endangered species. "People and wildlife need clean water to thrive. Destroying half of our nation’s streams and wetlands will be one of Trump’s ugliest legacies.”
The Trump rule narrows the Obama administration's 2015 definition of what's a protected body of water and effectively removes safeguards for some waterways that had been put into place with the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The administration says the changes would allow farmers to plow their fields without fear of unintentionally straying over the banks of a federally protected dry creek, bog or ditch. But the government’s own figures show it is real estate developers and those in other nonfarm business sectors that take out the most permits for impinging on wetlands and waterways, and stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief.
The federal protections keeping polluters and developers out of waterways and wetlands were “one of the most ridiculous” of all regulations, Trump told a farmer convention in 2019.
“It was a total kill on you and other businesses,” Trump said at that time.
The final rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days and become effective 60 days after that. Environmental groups pledged a legal challenge.
Iowa’s junior U.S. Senator Joni Ernst also supports the President’s policy change:
“For years, Iowans have told me what an egregious overreach Obama’s WOTUS rule was, giving the federal government authority to regulate 97 percent of the land in Iowa. That’s absurd, and it’s why I’ve worked hard to get rid of it. After working relentlessly alongside the Trump Administration, I’m proud that we’ve successfully scrapped this Obama-era rule and are now providing the predictability and certainty our hardworking farmers, manufacturers, and landowners in Iowa deserve. Under President Trump’s leadership, we’ve fought to get the government off the backs of farmers and business owners and have had major wins on trade – like the USMCA, the phase one China deal, and the Japan agreement – all of which are spurring a sense of optimism and economic growth across rural America.”
Environmental groups said the draft version of the rule released earlier would have lifted federal protections for roughly half of the nation's wetlands and one-fifth of the millions of miles of waterways. The administration challenges the methods behind that estimate and says it is not possible to come up with a solid figure for how much of the nation's surface water will be affected.
One of the biggest changes applies to so-called ephemeral waters - creeks and rivers that run only after rainfalls or snow melt. Such streams provide a majority of the water for some dry Western states, including New Mexico.
“That’’s a huge rollback from way before Obama, before Reagan," said Blan Holman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
State officials in New Mexico have particular concerns given that the Rio Grande, which provides drinking water and irrigation supplies for millions of people in the Southwest and Mexico, depends largely on the types of intermittent streams, creeks and wetlands that could lose protection under the rule draft released earlier. The Rio Grande is one of North America’s longest rivers.
Jen Pelz, the rivers program director with the New Mexico-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians, said the Rio Grande would be hard hit.
“It defies common sense to leave unprotected the arteries of life to the desert Southwest," Pelz said.
Another key change removes federal protections for wetlands deemed not directly connected to a major waterway
In South Dakota, farmer Arlen Foster said Thursday that many farmers believe that wetlands restrictions went too far even before the EPA adopted the 2015 Obama-era rule. And EPA isn’t the only agency that can affect farmers’ use of their land, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 rejected his petition challenging an Agriculture Department system that determined a small tract of his land was a wetland. He had argued that repeated snow melt led to standing water.
“These issues illustrate that ... regulations got out of hand and have gone too far,” he said.
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