(CN) – The Obama administration on Wednesday announced a long-awaited rule to increase environmental protections for small streams, tributaries and wetlands, despite criticism from farm groups and congressional Republicans.
The Clean Water Rule, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, is designed to end the uncertainty created by Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 as to which smaller bodies of water fall under the control of the Clean Water Act.
The rulings had thrown protections into question for 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands. Using the latest science, the new rule clears up the confusion and provides greater certainty about which waters are important to protect, according to the EPA.
President Obama said the rule “will provide the clarity and certainty businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, and it will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.”
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule will affect only waters that have a “direct and significant” connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected.
House Speaker John Boehner called it a “raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs,” but environmental groups praised it.
One in three Americans gets drinking water from streams that are vulnerable to pollution and degradation. Issuance of the rule will help protect 117 million Americans’ health, according to the EPA.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” McCarthy said.
“Protecting our water sources is a critical component of adapting to climate change impacts like drought, sea level rise, stronger storms, and warmer temperatures – which is why EPA and the Army have finalized the Clean Water Rule to protect these important waters, so we can strengthen our economy and provide certainty to American businesses,” she said.
The rule does not address land use or private property rights, nor does it pertain to ditches that are not constructed in streams and that flow only when it rains.
The changes do not create any new permitting requirements for agriculture. Activities such as planting, harvesting and moving livestock across streams have long been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation, and the new rule does not change that, McCarthy said.
The rule, proposed in March 2014, maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions, and adds exclusions for features such as artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from construction and grass swales, all in an attempt to stay out of agriculture’s way, she said.
Not all farm groups see it that way.
Dean Norton, president of the New York Farm Bureau, said farmers strongly oppose the changes “because of the potential regulatory overreach that will allow for federal control over land that is typically dry.”
“Clean water has always been a priority and necessity for farmers, but we are concerned that the rule will strip property owners of long held land rights,” he said.
Norton also claimed that the EPA failed to take into consideration the thousands of comments from farmers, business owners and property owners who feel the rule would add unnecessary burdens to their land.
“EPA would have accomplished much more working with farmers than just brushing their legitimate concerns aside. We will be carefully reviewing the final rule, but based on comments from EPA, we remain concerned that the agency did not listen to our nation’s farmers,” Norton said.
Republicans in Congress sought to kill the rule, which is to take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Legislation to block it has already passed the House and is pending in the Senate.
Congressman Chris Collins, R-NY, called the rule a continuation of the Obama administration’s “regulatory assault” on farmers.
“The EPA’s overreach is causing real harm for local farmers and stalling business development,” Collins said. “When I visit local farms, the heavy burdens under the Clean Water Act come up each and every time. When the bureaucrats at the EPA decide to call a divot in the ground that fills with rain a ‘navigable waterway’ under the CWA, we know our federal government has run amok. I will continue to fight this burdensome and business crushing ruling.”
House Speaker John Boehner said that House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject the “disastrous” rule.
“These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input, and places landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell,” Boehner said.
The EPA said it issued the rule in response to requests for more than a decade from members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, scientists, and the public for clarity on protections under the Clean Water Act.
To develop the rule, the EPA and Army said they held more than 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country, reviewed more than 1 million public comments, and studied a report summarizing more than 1,200 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies that showed that small streams and wetlands play an integral role in the health of larger downstream water bodies.
The rule has been praised by many environmental groups, including Environment California.
“California’s beaches – where we swim, fish, and go boating – can only be clean if we protect the streams that feed into the ocean,” said Dan Jacobson, executive director of Environment California, calling the new rule “the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”
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