EPA Looking To Roll Back Many Of Obama's U.S. Waterway Protections

Dec 11, 2018

The Environmental Protection Agency is looking to remove thousands of acres of wetlands and miles of waterways from Clean Water Act protections.

The EPA said Tuesday it believes the proposed changes to the “Waters of the United States” rule will reduce inefficiencies and allow landowners to have the freedom they need over their property.

It must go through a public comment period before any action can be taken, but the proposal was met with applause from many Republican politicians, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Environmental activists argued it will put water and land at risk of pollution and could negatively affect human health.

The change largely reverses a massive expansion in protected waterways that came in 2015 during the Obama administration. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called those provisions a “power grab.” It’s the latest deregulatory move by the Trump administration, which also recently rolled back school nutrition rules under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has been targeting emissions through the EPA.

E&E News reported that a 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers showed 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands will no longer be protected if the changes go through.

A major change

One of the most controversial changes is removing waterways and wetlands that only hold water during rainy times of year or during floods. The EPA contends these “ephemeral” or “intermittent” waterways do not need the same level of protections as active streams, rivers, lakes and their tributaries.

Dave Coonrod, president of the Missouri-based conservation group The James River Basin Partnership, said those temporary waterways are important.

"When we get heavy rains, the groudwater systems interact with the surface water systems, and those dry creeks suddenly become raging little rivers," Coonrood said.

Coonrod said that makes the groundwater susceptible to pollution — from nitrates to animal waste. 

But supporters of the change say it will benefit farmers and landowners by removing confusion and reducing unnecessary bureacracy.

Blake Hurst is the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, and farms thousands of acres of corn and soybeans with his family in northern Missouri.  He said the current rules are confusing and complicated to the point that farmers can't even do simple maintenance on a drainage ditch. 

"It's a ditch I made, on my farm, in my lifetime," Hurst said. "It needs maintenance every three, four or ten years. Do I have to get a permit every time I clear that ditch?"

Hurst also said each state will continue to protect all of the waterways, and the change only removes the federal rules for some of them. 

Agriculture Secretary Perdue said in a statement that farmers will make sure waterways are safe, saying they are "exceptional stewards of the environment."

The EPA provided new definitions of which waters qualify as a "waters of the United States."

  • Major rivers, lakes and seas (i.e. Mississippi River, Great Lakes, Atlantic Ocean),
  • Tributaries that flow even when it doesn’t rain,
  • Ditches that ebb and flow with tides (i.e. Erie Canal),
  • Lakes and ponds that, among other things, are typically flooded by other “waters of the United States,"
  • Wetlands like marshes that touch or are near another “waters of the United States."

It also made it clear what it doesn't consider as WOTUS:

  • Groundwater
  • A body that only holds water after rain
  • Converted cropland
  • Stormwater runoff receptacles
  • Waste treatment systems, including lagoons and ponds.

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