Farmers, real estate developers, and golf course owners — all industries that have long lobbied against clean water rules — are cheering President Donald Trump’s plan to massively roll back water protections on Tuesday, while climate advocates and environmentalists have already expressed dismay and horror.
In a long-anticipated move, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers announced this week the Trump administration’s proposed withdrawal of water protections for thousands of wetlands and waterways across the country.
That change to the Obama-era “waters of the United States” rule (WOTUS) is a massive shift from both the Obama administration’s interpretation of U.S. water protections as well as from historical enforcement of the 1972 Clean Water Act more generally.
Under the new plan, waters that only occur during rains or snow melts — such as seasonal streams and rivers — would not be considered federally protected; nor would wetlands not connected to other federally protected waterways.
“For the first time, we are clearly defining the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways,” said acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement, calling the proposed changes “simpler and clearer” and designed to help landowners.
The rollback makes good on a long-standing Trump promise. Upon entering office, the president swiftly launched an attack on WOTUS, directing then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to unravel the policy in February 2017.
The EPA’s shift in definition and loosening of WOTUS more broadly has implications for farmers and rural landowners. Under the Obama rule, both planting practices and the use of certain fertilizers and chemicals were steeply curtailed in order to avoid contaminating nearby waters.
Those groups have battled against WOTUS and are welcoming the rollback. In attendance at Tuesday’s proposal signing in Washington, D.C. were reportedly representatives from state Farm Bureaus in addition to the American Farm Bureau and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The National Mining Association and the National Association of Manufacturers have also offered support.
Officials present at Tuesday’s announcement appeared to welcome the farm and business interests represented. Journalists in the crowd noted on Twitter that the supporters of the rollback offered a heavily white and male picture, one largely at odds with the often low-income communities and people of color typically impacted by loose water protections.
But the speakers themselves repeatedly took aim at WOTUS and offered support for businesses who have argued that Obama-era protections have negatively impacted their industries. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R) joked to the crowd that the EPA has become a “four letter word”: “the Environmental Farm Protection Agency,” something he deemed “a good thing.”
Other business interests are also cheering the news. Both real estate developers and golf course owners have historically opposed WOTUS; those are industries in which the president has been heavily involved throughout his career and which stand to benefit from the rollback.
“By bringing clarity to which waters fall under federal oversight, this proposal should help accelerate the permitting process so home builders can more easily provide safe and affordable housing,” said NAHB Chairman Randy Noel.
Watch live as NAHB CEO Jerry Howard and other leaders and officials speak about the new @EPA definition of “waters of the United States” (#WOTUS) that will resolve years of uncertainty over where federal jurisdiction begins and ends. https://t.co/129UhQMsfm
— NAHB (@NAHBhome) December 11, 2018
The National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA), meanwhile, has similarly supported the Trump administration’s WOTUS decisions. And industry support has also been reflected in lobbying: the Professional Golfers’ Association of America has spent at least $90,000 lobbying on WOTUS in 2018, according to filings. Meanwhile Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying on the issue this year.
But environmental groups swiftly expressed condemnation on Tuesday.
“Even a child understands that small streams flow into large streams and lakes – which provide drinking water for so many Americans,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group in a statement. “By removing safeguards and allowing industry to dump pollutants into these water sources, Trump’s EPA is ensuring more contamination challenges for utilities and dirtier water for their customers.”
Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, called the move a “despicable attack” on clean water in the midst of ongoing water crises across the country, including in Flint, Michigan, and in Florida. Other groups expressed similar sentiments and many indicated that they would fight the rollback.
The administration will now accept comments from the public on the plan over the course of the next 60 days. Analysts have indicated they believe the proposal will generate wide-scale legal action.
The WOTUS announcement continues an ongoing slog of environmental regulation rollbacks. The Trump administration has sought to empower fossil fuels like coal and oil while weakening the environmental protections meant to safeguard wildlife and public health.
Under Ryan Zinke, the Interior Department has also reduced public lands and eyed opening up federal waters to oil and gas drilling and exploration. Zinke was notably present at the WOTUS announcement on Tuesday, although the Interior Department has no oversight over the rule.
While WOTUS opponents celebrated the rollback, supporters of the rule are eyeing the new year. The Trump administration has enjoyed majorities in the House and Senate to support its efforts, come January that situation is set to change when Democrats take over the lower chamber.