Trump to end decades-old Clean Water Act protections for wetlands, seasonal streams

Development versus waterways in California
(Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

The Trump administration will formally start the process of lifting federal Clean Water Act protections for millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of streams across the U.S., undoing decades of protections against pesticide runoff, industrial waste, and other pollutants. The proposed rules, to be unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency as soon as Tuesday, are a victory for agricultural and real estate interests but could degrade the drinking water used by tens of millions of Americans and endanger fisheries and the habitats of migratory birds and other species.

President Trump promised during his campaign to roll back the Obama-era Waters of the United States rules, an expansion of federal protections under the the Clean Water Act of 1972, but the new proposals target protections dating back to the George H.W. Bush administration or earlier. The Trump rules, which will be subject to 60 days of public comment, will keep protections for larger bodies of water but remove federal safeguards for wetlands not adjacent to navigable waterways plus most seasonal streams and ponds. The newly vulnerable streams provided drinking water for as many as 1 in 3 Americans, especially in the arid West, according to scientific studies used by the Obama-era EPA.

The Trump EPA calls that data incomplete and will argue that it is tackling an Obama-era federal power grab against rural farmers. Trump's promise to end the Waters of the United States policy was cheered by farmers, real estate developers, golf course owners, and mining and oil firm. Environmental groups call the new proposal a disaster. "It is hard to overstate the impact of this," Blan Holman, managing attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, tells the Los Angeles Times. "This would be taking a sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act and rolling things back to a place we haven't been since it was passed. It is a huge threat to water quality across the country, and especially in the West."

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