Trump's EPA Plans to Eliminate Obama-Era Rule to Protect Drinking Water

"You need to protect wetlands if you want to have clean water.”

President Donald Trump wants “crystal clear water.” We know this because he said this — as a self-described “germophobe,” the president has emphasized his desire for clean water and air. However, since the start of his presidency, the Trump administration has steadily worked to dismantle a range of regulations designed to ensure the clear, clean water he describes. On Tuesday, the newest blow against environmental health was announced: a proposed revised definition of the “Waters of the United States” rule.

“Waters of the United States” was implemented in 2015 under President Barack Obama and was developed under the authority of the 1972 Clean Water Act. It was designed to limit pollution in 60 percent of the United States’ bodies of water. When he announced the rule, President Obama emphasized it would protect the one in three Americans who get drinking water from streams lacking protection.

The decision was also immediately criticized by farmers, property developers, oil and gas producers, golf course owners, and fertilizer and pesticide makers, who saw the regulation — which restricted how much pollution from chemical fertilizers and pesticides could enter water — as stifling their business interests.

In the revisions proposed Tuesday by Andrew Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting administrator, groundwater, artificial lakes and ponds, stormwater features, farm ditches, isolated wetlands, and ephemeral streams would no longer qualify for federal protections. Larger bodies of water, rivers that drain into them, and wetlands adjacent to larger bodies of water will still be protected.

How waterways are defined.


“Our proposal would replace the Obama EPA’s 2015 definition with one that respects the limits of the Clean Water Act and provides states and landowners the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow local economies,” Wheeler announced Tuesday. “For the first time, we are clearly defining the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways. Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals.”

Critics of the EPA’s decision argue that the previous regulations are necessary because, while a body of water might not be physically next to a major one, they can still drain into larger bodies through underground networks. Under this proposal, federal officials are prevented from ordering changes in fertilizers that spill into small waterways. The proposed rule change also slashes government oversight over the water bodies that emerge during mining and fracking projects.

Topsoil, as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants, run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the NGO Food & Water Watch, explained in an emailed statement to Inverse that “you need to protect wetlands if you want to have clean water.” Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told HuffPost that the Trump administration’s proposal will have “catastrophic” impacts on drinking water.

This new step is one of many the Trump administration has pushed to reshape how the Environmental Protection Agency protects the environment. In December 2017, the EPA announced its plan to revise the “Waters of the United States” rule being discussed now. In January, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruit suspended the Clean Water Rule with an executive order — a suspension that was invalidated in August by South Carolina District Judge David Norton.

This new regulation’s proposal kicks off a 60-day comment period. Americans who want to provide their input on this decision can send in their comments here.

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