The Biden administration is working to restore clean water guarantees
Washington — The Biden administration took action Thursday to restore federal protections to hundreds of thousands of small streams, wetlands and other waterways, scrapping a Trump-era rule that was seen as one of that administration’s signature environmental rollback.
There is a law sometimes referred to as “Water of the United States” or WOTUS, which defines the types of waterways eligible for federal protection under the Clean Water Act. Regulation has long been a point of contention among environmental groups, farmers, homebuilders, lawmakers, and the courts.
The EPA and Army announcement is restarting a pre-2015 base while the Biden administration arrives on its own, which is expected next year.
The administration said in June that it plans to repeal the Trump-era water rule and issue new regulations defining waterways that are federally protected under the Clean Water Act. In August, a federal judge in Arizona rescinded the Trump water rule and reinstated the 1986 standard. Its scope was broader than the Trump rule but narrower than authorized by the Obama administration, which brought federal protection to nearly 60% of the nation’s waterways.
Builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others have long complained of federal overreach of Obama administration restrictions that they said extended into canyons, streams and valleys on farmland and other private property. They have repeatedly argued that broad federal protections for the waterways make it difficult for them to do their job.
Thursday’s agency action formalizes the steps it has already taken since the court order.
Environmental groups and public health advocates say a strong federal rule is critical to protecting small streams, wetlands and other waterways that are vulnerable to pollution from development, industry and farms. Officials said the Trump-era rule has led to an estimated 25% reduction in the number of streams and wetlands granted federal protection.
Groups, including the National Association of Home Builders and the American Federation of Agricultural Offices, have argued that the court should not have struck down Trump’s rule without deciding on the merits of legal challenges. The Farm Bureau said at the time that the judge’s August ruling “casts doubt on farmers and ranchers across the country and threatens the progress they have made in managing water and natural resources in a responsible manner.”
An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the legal appeal.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Reagan acknowledged the uncertainty that had come to determine the water base. “The only constant in WOTUS is change, creating a major blow in how best to protect our waters in communities across America,” he said.
EPA spokesman Nick Conger said Thursday’s proposal included updates that reflect the latest scientific and Supreme Court rulings. The EPA also said long-term clean water waivers for farmers will continue.
Kelly Moser, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has pushed for stricter regulation, said the action shows this administration is “serious about getting back quickly to the way to protect the nation’s water quality rather than dismantling it.”
Agencies will accept public comments on the proposal until late January.
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