The White House on Wednesday finalized a rule intended to strengthen and clarify the Clean Water Act, setting up a clash with Republicans in Congress and the agriculture industry.
The “Waters of the United States” rule is designed to help federal officials clarify and simplify which bodies of water fall under the control of the Clean Water Act, the pivotal 1972 environmental law.
“Clear protections mean cleaner water,” wrote Gina McCarthy in a blog post.
McCarthy is administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed the rule.
“The Clean Water Act has protected our health for more than 40 years – and helped our nation clean up hundreds of thousands of miles of polluted waterways...Using the latest science, this rule clears up the confusion, providing greater certainty for the first time in more than a decade about which waters are important to protect.”
Added White House Senior Advisor Brian Deese, who announced the rule along with EPA and Army Corps officials: “There is a lot of misinformation about what this rule does and doesn’t do. But what becomes clear…is that the only people with reason to oppose the rule are polluters who knowingly threaten our clean water.”
The rule was first out in draft form in early 2014, and from the start Republicans, farmers, developers and other business interests had opposed it, calling it a massive overreach by federal regulators.
Advocates, such as the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, call the rule “a significant fix” for tens of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of streams that contribute to the drinking water for 117 million Americans.
Opponents, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, say the rule will give the federal government more power over land-use decisions and will “make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable.”
The EPA and Army Corps were caught in a deluge of comments on the issue – more than 1 million in all. The EPA said it was caught by surprise by parts of the push-back, and McCarthy said in November that she was “not prepared for...criticism that we did no outreach before we put the rule out.”
The rule was proposed by the agencies to simplify and clarify the meaning of the 1972 Clean Water Act. That law covers rivers, lakes and year-round wetlands. But what about certain streams that dry up part of the year? Or wetlands that are only wet during springtime months?
The rule is intended to take into consideration two U.S. Supreme Court cases from the 2000s and to lay out standards for which waters should be covered.
The Clean Water Act requires permits for developing or discharging into covered waters, making the rule of vital importance to farmers, and to landowners in general.
Despite the fact that this is a final rule, the battle is far from over. Republicans in Congress have sought to kill it, and legislation to throttle it has already passed the House and is pending in the Senate. The Senate legislation has 30 co-sponsors – mostly Republicans but three Democrats.
It the bill does pass both chambers, it faces a veto threat from President Barack Obama. As the White House said in a statement of policy in April in response to the House bill: “The final rule should be allowed to proceed. EPA and Army have sought the views of and listened carefully to the public throughout the extensive public engagement process for this rule. It would be imprudent to dismiss the years of work that have already occurred and no value would be added...If the president were presented with H.R. 1732, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”
The Farm Bureau had a campaign to “Ditch the Rule,” so named because of fears the EPA would now be in the business of regulating roadside ditches. And the EPA responded with a “Ditch the Myth” page, seeking to respond to farmers’ and others’ concerns.