WASHINGTON — Completing one of its most far-reaching environmental rollbacks, the Trump administration on Thursday lifted protections for some of the nation’s millions of miles of streams and wetlands — clean water rules vigorously opposed by farmers who believed even puddles formed after a rain would be subject to government regulation.
The changes will scale back which waterways qualify for protection against pollution including pesticides, fertilizers and mine waste, as well as against development.
The 2015 Waters of the United States rule, known as WOTUS, was an effort by the Obama administration to define which streams and wetlands are protected by the 1972 Clean Water Act.
But farmers and agriculture industry groups said the rule went too far, impeding their operations by extending the pollution restrictions to unnavigable waters — some of which appeared only after it had rained.
The Iowa Farm Bureau asserted the rule gave the Environmental Protection Agency authority over waters in 97 percent of the state’s land mass.
Courts blocked the rule from ever taking effect in some states including Iowa. Last September, the Trump administration repealed the rule and vowed to replace it with something far less restrictive.
On Thursday, chiefs of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers signed the new rule before appearing at a builders’ convention in Las Vegas.
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“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses to support the economy and accelerate critical infrastructure projects,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.
Wheeler noted the changes lift federal protections for “ephemeral waters” — creeks and rivers that run only after rainfalls or a snow melt. Such streams provide a majority of the drinking water for some Western states, and feed into the Rio Grande, one of North America’s longest rivers.
The changes had been opposed by environmental advocates and public health officials.
They say it’s impossible to keep downstream lakes, rivers and water supplies clean unless upstream waters also are regulated federally.
The targeted regulations also protect wildlife and their habitats.
The administration, though, says the changes would allow farmers to plow their fields without fear of unintentionally straying over the banks of a federally protected dry creek, bog or ditch.
“Giving the federal government the power to regulate nearly all of Iowa would have been an economic catastrophe,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. “My neighbors who farm in Butler County shouldn’t have to get permission from bureaucrats in Washington to move soil on their own land. This was just another example of out-of-touch and ill-conceived government overreach. This new rule will help keep our water and land clean without destroying Iowa’s small businesses and family farming operations.”
Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement that the new rule “provides clarity, predictability, and consistency while also balancing environmental protections with the rights and interests of states like ours.”
However, government figures show it is real estate developers and those in other nonfarm business sectors that take out the most permits for impinging on wetlands and waterways, and stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief from the rollback.
The final rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days and become effective 60 days after that.
The Associated Press contributed.