EPA Establishes Clearer Definition of U.S. Waterways for Broader Protections
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army announced on December 30 the establishment of a clear, durable definition of U.S. waterways to secure the EPA’s oversight of U.S. waterways after long legal battles and debate over the expansiveness of the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act, which has been around in some form since it was formerly called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1984, regulates pollution discharge and water quality standards for waterways.
While environmental groups have long wanted broader limits for the Clean Water Act to minimize pollution in waterways across the U.S., businesses and the agriculture industry have argued that more water regulations under the act would unfairly restrict their business.
President Barack Obama’s administration worked on expanding the regulations, but the Trump administration reversed these efforts. Then, a federal judge overturned the Trump administration’s moves to minimize water regulations.
Now, the Biden administration has finalized a rule that gives the EPA oversight over more clearly defined “waters of the United States,” which will better protect “traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, interstate waters,” as well as smaller upstream waterways and wetlands.
“When Congress passed the Clean Water Act 50 years ago, it recognized that protecting our waters is essential to ensuring healthy communities and a thriving economy,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “Following extensive stakeholder engagement, and building on what we’ve learned from previous rules, EPA is working to deliver a durable definition of WOTUS that safeguards our nation’s waters, strengthens economic opportunity, and protects people’s health while providing greater certainty for farmers, ranchers, and landowners.”
The finalized rule defines U.S. waterways based on regulations from the pre-2015 definition with guidance from updated scientific information and updates from existing Supreme Court decisions. But the Supreme Court is also weighing a separate case that could ultimately disrupt the finalized regulations announced on Friday.
Opponents are still arguing that the regulations will hurt the agricultural and building industries, and the Supreme Court is still considering a case in which a couple in Idaho were told they needed a permit to build a home near what the EPA stated were federally regulated wetlands. The court’s decision could further change the definition of “waters of the United States.”
With the current, updated definition, the EPA stated that the U.S. will be better positioned to meet the goal of the Clean Water Act, which is for all U.S. waters to be supportive of recreation, wildlife, agriculture and public health.
Radhika Fox, EPA assistant administrator for water, told The Associated Press, “We have put forward a rule that’s clear, it’s durable, and it balances that protecting of our water resources with the needs of all water users, whether it’s farmers, ranchers, industry, watershed organizations.”