A few days ago, while Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was assuring a Senate committee that his agency was keen on protecting the nation's clean air and water, EPA staffers were busy redefining what might be considered "Waters of the United States," or WOTUS. And on Wednesday the EPA made it official: the administration plans to rescind the Clean Water Rule, a contentious Obama legacy that President Donald Trump has described as "this very destructive and horrible rule."
The 2015 rule, which had been devised in response to some confusing Supreme Court decisions over what constitute "navigable waters," had sought to clarify federal jurisdiction over various bodies of water — and would have extended protection under the 1972 Clean Water Act for two million miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands. But the rule has faced court challenges since its conception and has never been implemented.
"We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation's farmers and businesses," Pruitt declared in a press statement.
The move was promptly bemoaned by environmentalists and hailed by agribusiness and fracking interests. (Peter Marcus of the Gazette has a nice roundup of local reactions.) Republican leaders have characterized the proposed repeal as a welcome smackdown of government overreach, one that will give farmers and ranchers more control over water resources on private land. It's also part of a larger rollback of environmental policies under the Trump administration that includes proposed deep staff cuts at the Department of the Interior, a review of the protected status of some protected public lands, permitting wild horses to be euthanized or sold to slaughterhouses, and other controversial measures.
Although the Clean Water Rule has been under attack for the past three years, defenders of the rule say it enjoyed widespread support and would have provided protection to headwaters and "ephemeral" streams that feed into critical habitat for fish and wildlife; the waterways and wetlands covered by the rule constitute more than half of the stream miles in the United States. And roughly one in three Americans derive their drinking water from sources that the rule was designed to protect.
This week's announcement kicks off a thirty-day period for public comment on the proposed repeal.