The Trump administration forged ahead on its 2017 promise to roll back regulations under the Clean Water Act this month, stripping away a rule that expanded federal protections to smaller streams and wetlands.
The announcement was met with cheers from Wyoming farmers and ranchers who considered the 2015 rules cumbersome to economic development.
The Obama-era rule, known as the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, broadened the types of water that fall under the federal Clean Water Act. Placing stricter regulatory requirements on additional water sources, like headwater streams or wetlands, would protect aquatic life and public health from harmful contamination from industry, the Environmental Protection Agency under the previous administration said.
But critics think the rule went too far, unleashing confusion and burdensome permitting requirements for industry.
On Sept. 12, the EPA, now headed by Administrator Andrew Wheeler, announced the repeal of the guidelines, bringing the rule back to its pre-2015 standard.
The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation applauded the repeal, calling it a victory for the state’s farmers and ranchers.
“On a personal level, I am deeply protective of water quality because I raised my family drinking from a well on our farm,” said Todd Fornstrom, president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation. “As farmers and ranchers, we share the goal of protecting the nation’s water, but the 2015 Waters of the United States rule was unreasonable and unworkable.”
The 2015 rule made it difficult for the agricultural industry to discern what bodies of water could be subject to the Clean Water Act regulation and opened the floodgates to damaging citizen plaintiffs against farmers, the bureau explained.
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Sen. John Barrasso also supported the change: “The WOTUS rule would have put backyard ponds, puddles, and prairie potholes under Washington’s control,” he said in a statement. “I applaud the Trump administration for working to remove this outrageous regulation.”
The National Mining Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and American Petroleum Administration also backed the repeal this month.
The controversial WOTUS rule had a haphazard rollout from the start. States across the country immediately challenged the 2015 rule in court, temporarily halting application of the rule in dozens of states, including Wyoming.
The uneven application of the rule across the country, coupled with a deluge of various court rulings, left both proponents and opponents with little clarity over the rule’s murky status.
But conservation groups cautioned that relaxing standards for these smaller bodies of water opened up the possibility for harmful groundwater contamination, compromising human and wildlife health, not to mention hunting and fishing activities.
“These waters contribute to the drinking water supplies of 117 million Americans, protect communities from flooding, and provide essential fish and wildlife habitat that supports a robust outdoor recreation economy worth $887 billion annually,” stated a public comment submitted to the EPA and signed by nearly 100 organizations.
An investigation by E&E published in December revealed the EPA estimated 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands could be left unprotected if the agency repealed WOTUS.
Instituted half a century ago, the Clean Water Act sets wastewater standards and pollution controls for industry to keep pollutants out of the nation’s water sources.