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EPA pushes to solidify federal power to protect streams, wetlands

EPA tries to clear doubts on Clean Water Act powers to protect wetlands and streams that run into larger bodies of water

The Obama administration is expected to soon announce a new rule reaffirming the federal government’s powers to protect the nation’s waters from pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday.

“The EPA is planning on finalizing the Clean Water Rule in the spring,” agency spokesman Robert Daguillard told Al Jazeera. It follows two Supreme Court rulings in the 2000s that cast doubt over federal authority as set out by the 1972 Clean Water Act and led to confusion over the regulation of smaller streams and wetlands that flow into larger bodies of water.

The New York Times reported Friday that the White House was expected to announce the new rule in the coming days.

But even before being announced, the proposed change has drawn opposition from business interests and their supporters in Congress.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto a bill the House passed earlier this month to overturn the new rule, The Hill reported. Meanwhile, the Senate proposed a bill last month that would require the EPA to start over with a new rule under specific parameters.

At issue is the federal government’s authority to regulate wetlands and streams that flow into larger bodies of water.

Although that authority was included in the original Clean Water Act, it was cast into doubt by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, the EPA said on its website.

Environmental groups condemned those decisions, and began working to restore protections to most streams and wetlands.

“It’s pretty simple — all water is connected. Even kids understand that,” Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, said on its website. “The health of our rivers, lakes and bays depend on the streams and wetlands that flow into them.”

In the wake of the court decisions, the EPA, White House and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began working on a new rule to reduce confusion over the powers the federal government has to regulate pollution in smaller bodies of water.

The new rule will “provide clearer, more predictable guidelines for determining which water bodies are protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act,” according to the White House. The new guidance will be consistent with the Act and the Supreme Court decisions, it added.

According to the proposed rule, most seasonal and rain-dependent streams would be clearly and definitively described as protected by the Clean Water Act, as would wetlands near rivers and streams.

Under the proposed changes, other water systems that have more uncertain connections with downstream water will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the connection is significant.

Not covered by the proposed rule are waste treatment systems, most cropland, ditches, groundwater or artificially irrigated areas. Nor are artificial lakes, pools or ponds affected by the rule change.

Farmers and ranchers had earlier expressed concern about what many saw as an overreach of authority by the federal government, after the EPA released the draft Clean Water Rule last year.

The EPA said it had held over 400 meetings and had taken into account over 1 million public comments in revising the draft rule, and had made changes based on those comments.

“We will protect clean water without getting in the way of farming and ranching,” the EPA said in a blog post. “Normal agriculture practices like plowing, planting, and harvesting a field have always been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation; this rule won’t change that at all.”

As part of its push to clarify the importance of the new rule, the White House released a 2011 report called “Clean Water: Foundation of Healthy Communities and a Healthy Environment.”

The report contained an example of the importance of regulating the wetlands and streams that drain into larger bodies of water.

“The San Pedro River is one of the more ecologically rich rivers in Arizona. Storm water discharges from construction sites carried oil, grease, and other pollutants to ephemeral tributaries of the San Pedro,” the report said.

“EPA efforts to address this pollution problem were constrained by the complex evidence needed to establish that the tributaries were protected under the Clean Water Act and the EPA ultimately had to discontinue efforts to address these sources,” the report said.

The revised guidance will provide “predictable, consistent and effective protections of water … (and) clearer, less burdensome guidelines for the public that make it easier and simpler to determine whether a particular water body is protected,” the White House said in its report.

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