Climate

Senators Vote To Repeal Clean Water Rule That Protects Millions Of Miles Of Streams

CREDIT: AP

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) is the sponsor of the bill that would block the Obama administration's new water regulations.

Congressional Republicans are one step closer to blocking the Obama administration’s attempt to clarify the EPA’s regulatory powers under the Clean Water Act.

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee voted 11-9 to pass a bill that would effectively repeal the administration’s recently announced regulations for water pollution. The vote was split cleanly among party lines, with only Republicans supporting it.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), would nullify the Waters of the United States Rule, released in late May, and set specific guidelines that the EPA must follow in re-writing the rule.

As it stands, the rule seeks to clarify the bodies of water that can be regulated under the Clean Water Act. In its current form, the Waters of the United States Rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule, restores protections for navigable waterways and their tributaries, and protects bodies of water that are located next to rivers and lakes.

The EPA argues that the Clean Water Rule only protects waters that have historically been protected under the Clean Water Act, and does not require a new permitting process for agriculture.

“It does not regulate most ditches and does not regulate groundwater, shallow subsurface flows, or tile drains. It does not make changes to current policies on irrigation or water transfers or apply to erosion in a field,” the EPA said in the press statement after the final rule was released. “The Clean Water Rule addresses the pollution and destruction of waterways – not land use or private property rights.”

Opponents of the rule, however, claim that it extends far beyond the EPA’s historic jurisdiction and into controlling state or privately-owned waters. They also say it could adversely impact farmers and industry. According to the Hill, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the committee, said that farmers in Oklahoma are more concerned about the Clean Water Rule than any other federal policy.

Barrasso’s bill is co-sponsored by a handful of Senate Democrats, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). The bill sets guidelines for specific bodies of water that cannot be regulated — like isolated ponds — and requires that the EPA consult with state and local governments as well as private companies before rewriting the rule, according to the Hill.

Not a single Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted for the bill. Instead, the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called the bill a “back-door repeal of the Clean Water Act” that would remove protection for a significant portion of the country’s waters.

Boxer and five other Democrats on the committee offered amendments to the bill, which they hoped would help preserve parts of the rule’s protections. Those amendments were voted down along party lines.

Barrasso’s bill now heads to the Senate floor, where it needs 60 votes to pass.

This isn’t the first time members of Congress have voted for a bill aimed at blocking the Clean Water Rule. In May, the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), which sought to block the EPA’s proposed rule and force the creation of a new one.

Environmental groups argue that attempts by Congress to block the Clean Water Rule run counter to what the public wants.

“The senators who voted against clean water today weren’t listening to the majority of Americans who want to see their rivers, streams, and livelihoods protected from pollution,” Ally Fields, federal clean water advocate with Environment America, said in a press statement emailed to ThinkProgress.