EPA Loosens Federal Water Protections in New Rule

Jan. 23, 2020, 4 p.m. ·

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule fulfills a Trump campaign promise to repeal the Obama-era WOTUS policy. (Photo courtesy of The Environmental Protection Agency)

The Trump Administration finalized a rule today that will replace the repealed Obama-era Waters of The United States policy. The new regulations redefine what bodies of water will be federally controlled under The Clean Water Actand perhaps more importantly, which ones won’t.

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule satisfies a Trump campaign pledge to narrow what waters must comply with pollution guidelines.

While larger bodies like oceans, rivers, tributaries, and their adjacent wetlands remain protected, the policy deregulates bodies fed mostly by rainfall, groundwater, farm ditches, and other localized structures.

The EPA said in a statement that the new rule "protects the environment while respecting states, localities, tribes, and private property owners". They added, "It clearly delineates where federal regulations apply and gives state and local authorities more flexibility to determine how best to manage water within their borders."

Many farmers like Eugene Glock, a self-described water conservationist in eastern Nebraska, are happy to have more leeway.

“I still believe the closer you can get control to the ground, the better off you are. Because those people who are sitting in offices in Washington...some of them have never been on a farm,” he said.

But some critics of the policy are concerned that localities won't appropriately enact conservation efforts without a federal push. And while Glock said he's witnessed his share of irresponsible water management, he still thinks conservation should be a community effort.

"I don't totally disagree that you can't always trust local people to do it," he said. "But I still come down on the side that you're going to be better off if you do trust local people. Because if they do see there's a problem, they can very quickly make a change."

Dan Snow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources says these kinds of regulations have seesawed over the past few decades.

"This sort of give and take has been going on for about 20 or 30 years," he said. "Sometimes we get over protective and it costs us a lot of money...and the other extreme is when we don't have any regulation and don't worry about what happens to things. And that's when things really get bad."

But Snow said any deregulation should go hand in hand with making sure districts know how to handle the increased responsibility.

“So make sure that the science is communicated in a way that individuals who make the decisions can understand what the consequences are,” said Snow.

The EPA says the final rule will become effective 60 days after it’s published in the Federal Register.