Trump's new Clean Water Act draws criticism from environmentalists, support from developers, farmers

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
December 14, 2018, 9:05:18 PM EST


Countless wetlands and thousands of miles of United States waterways would no longer be federally protected by the Clean Water Act under a new proposal by the Trump administration.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (DA) proposed a new definition of the “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, that clarifies federal authority under the Clean Water Act, on Tuesday, Dec. 11.

The proposal aims to provide a “straightforward definition that would result in significant cost savings, protect the nation’s navigable waters, help sustain economic growth, and reduce barriers to business development,” according to the press release.

Trump Clean Water Act 2018

An Egret looks for food along Valhalla Pond Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Riverview, Fla. The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed withdrawing federal protections for countless waterways and wetlands across the country. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)


“Our proposal would replace the Obama EPA’s 2015 definition with one that respects the limits of the Clean Water Act and provides states and landowners the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow local economies,” EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in the press release.

Wheeler said the administration hopes to clearly define the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways. The simpler and clearer definition will help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals.

The agencies’ proposal is the second step in a two-step process to review and revise the definition of WOTUS consistent with President Trump's February 2017 Executive Order entitled “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.”

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The Executive Order states that it is in the national interest "to ensure that the nation's navigable waters are kept free from pollution, while at the same time promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles of Congress and the states under the Constitution."

“We focused on developing an implementable definition that balances local and national interests under the Clean Water Act,” said R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

“I have heard from a wide range of stakeholders on Clean Water Act implementation challenges. This proposed definition provides a common-sense approach to managing our nation's waters,” James said.

clean water act trump 2018

A puddle blocks a path that leads into the Panther Island Mitigation Bank, Thursday, June 7, 2018, near Naples, Fla. Experts say Trump administration’s move to redefine what constitutes a waterway under federal law is threatening a uniquely American effort to save wetlands from destruction. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)


The proposed change widely differs from the definition put forward by the Obama administration in 2015, which aimed to broaden federal clean water protections to include not only those large waterways but also the smaller streams and tributaries that feed into them.

Obama’s Clean Water Act had received harsh backlash from Republican opponents, agriculture groups and real estate developers, which have criticized the move as a regulatory overreach.

Opponents to the Obama’s rule have sued in 28 states, blocking the 2015 definition from going into effect in regions across the South and West, but it has been implemented in 22 states.

The American Farm Bureau has been one of the more outspoken groups in its support for the New Clean Water Act.


The Water Advocacy Coalition has also shared their support for the new WOTUS definition.

“Today’s release of a new water rule is an encouraging next step in the decades-long push for a WOTUS definition that empowers communities to protect their own water resources while providing regulatory clarity for our nation’s farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and landowners,” Water Advocacy Coalition spokesman Amos Snead said in a statement on Tuesday.

Snead called the 2015 WOTUS rule an “onerous, overreaching federal regulation [that] has weighed heavily on states, local governments, and the regulated community across the country.”

This latest rollback is one of dozens of environmental regulations the Trump administration has aimed to curtail or replace in an effort to boost industry and fossil fuel production. For example, the call for an end to electric car subsidies and the removal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord.

Environmental groups continue to sound the alarm on Trump's removal of environmental protections, and many are threatening legal challenges to the new WOTUS rule.

“The EPA’s new definition of the Obama-era safeguard would allow polluters to dirty our critically important streams, tributaries, and wetlands—and threaten the water supply of millions of Americans,” a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) statement reads.

According to the NRDC, the new rule would make it easier for oil drillers, industrial sites, developers and other polluters to contaminate these waterways.

“The Trump administration will stop at nothing to reward polluting industries and endanger our most treasured resources,” Jon Devine, director of the Federal Water program at NRDC, said in the statement.


Under the EPA's new proposal, the only wetlands that will be federally protected are those that are adjacent to a major body of water or ones that are connected to a major waterway by surface water.

The proposal also plans to eliminate the protections for ephemeral or intermittent waterways. Ephemeral streams flow only after precipitation, but they constitute a major part of the country's water systems.

A study referenced by the EPA under President Obama said that nearly 60 percent of all U.S. waterways, and 81 percent in the arid Southwest, are ephemeral or flow seasonally, the types of waterways that would lose protections. However, Wheeler disputed those figures, saying they couldn't be backed up in his announcement.

This point has largely been the peak of contention surrounding the new water rule.

Despite the controversies surrounding Trump's actions on environmental regulations, Trump continues to pledge his support for a clean environment.


Arguments over federal jurisdiction and the definition of WOTUS have been going on since the modern version of the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972.

The Clean Water Act in 1972 aimed to maintain the "chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters," and was largely a response to unchecked dumping of pollution into waterways.

At the time, two-thirds of the country's lakes, rivers and coastal waters had become unsafe for fishing or swimming. To reduce this pollution, the act largely prohibited the discharge of pollution into the country's "navigable waters."

Successive administrations, interest groups and the U.S. Supreme Court have been fighting over the definition of "navigable waters" and their scope ever since.

With lawsuits likely and a 60-day public comment period ahead, the administration's proposal still has a ways to go before becoming law.

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