The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have an easier time regulating water pollution under a new rule released Wednesday.
The Waters of the United States rule, developed by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, offers protection to two million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands that, until now, were not clearly designated under the Clean Water Act. The rule clarifies what tributaries and wetlands are part of the overall water system and will decrease confusion and expense, the EPA and Army Corps said Wednesday.
The confusion about what waters can be regulated stems from 2001, when the Supreme Court found that the EPA did not have jurisdiction to regulate isolated wetlands. That decision created confusion about how and where pollution can enter the water system — and what regulators can do about it.
“We’ve had to operate under a lot of confusion,” Assistant Secretary for the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy said on a call Wednesday. “Our rule will make it clear which waters are covered and which waters aren’t.”
One out of every three Americans gets drinking water from sources connected to water that, until now, did not have clear protection. In addition, determining which waters were covered has been costly and time-consuming. The new rule ultimately seeks to protect downstream water sources, using current scientific practices to determine what bodies of water are interconnected.
“Science now shows what waterways are connected,” Darcy said. “For generations to come, Americans will have the clean water necessary to protect our way of life and our economy.”
The rule was first proposed in April 2014 and was open to public comments for more than seven months. The EPA reviewed more than 400,000 comments and held outreach events around the country, but land-use advocates and agricultural groups protested the proposed rule, saying the EPA was seeking to regulate “ditches.”
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was clear that the new rule will not affect the “normal farming operations” that are already carved out under the Clean Water Act. Under the rule, there will be no new requirements for agriculture or forestry, industries which will retain “all the decades long exemptions” they currently enjoy, she said on the call Wednesday.
“Farmers, ranchers, and foresters are all original conservationists, and we recognize that,” McCarthy said.
The rule has been backed by businesses as well as environmental groups. A coalition of beer breweries testified to Congress last week, saying that they “rely” the EPA rules to protect their business.
“Our brewery and our communities depend on clean water,” said Andrew Lemley, government affairs representative for New Belgium Brewing Company. “Beer is, after all, over 90 percent water and if something happens to our source water the negative affect on our business is almost unthinkable.”
A League of Conservation Voters poll found that 80 percent of voters support the rule. McCarthy told reporters Wednesday that more than 80 percent of small business owners also are in favor of the protections.
“Our economy as a whole depends on clean water,” she said.
Protecting tributaries is critical to maintaining clean drinking water, but it also has implications for mitigating the effects of climate change. As cycles of drought and flooding increase, wetlands and waterways play a role in managing surface water. Wetlands, especially, can trap floodwater, which can help reduce damage.
Environmentalists called the new rule a win for America’s clean water system.
“It’s a big and very important step forward,” Jon Devine, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress. “What it does is really restore protections… Waters that had been protected will be protected again.”
He noted that the rule will likely face judicial challenges, but said he thinks the rule is “on unbelievably solid ground, legally.”
Congress, though, offers another route to removing protection from these waters. Already the House has passed a bill that would force the EPA to retract the rule, and a similar bill is being debated in Senate committee.
— Richard Hudson (@RepRichHudson) May 26, 2015
McCarthy hit back Wednesday against allegations that the agency improperly advocated for the rule.
“We would welcome anyone to take a look at what we do,” she said, noting that there have been more than 4,000 meetings about the rule.
“Using social media is clearly a part of that effort… This is how you reach people,” she said. “There is no way in the world we have crossed any legal line or are doing anything inappropriate.”