The Trump administration on Thursday ended federal protection for many of the nation’s millions of miles of streams, arroyos and wetlands, a sweeping environmental rollback that could leave the waterways more vulnerable to pollution from development, industry and farms.
The policy change, signed by the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, narrows the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the half-century-old Clean Water Act.
Since his first weeks in office, President Donald Trump has targeted environmental and public health regulations that he says imposed unnecessary burdens on business.
The change to the clean water rule had long been sought by builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others. But environmental groups and public-health advocates say the rollback will allow businesses to dump pollutants into newly federally unprotected waterways and fill in some wetlands, threatening public water supplies downstream and harming wildlife and habitat.
EPA head Andrew Wheeler told reporters that states were still free to step in with state protections of newly vulnerable waterways if they choose.
“Our rule protects the environment and our waterways while respecting the rights of states and property owners,” Wheeler said. The rollback of the clean-water enforcement “strikes the proper balance between Washington, D.C., and the states,” he said.
Brett Hartl, a government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation advocacy group, called the changes “a sickening gift to polluters.”
The administration’s action “will allow wetlands, streams and rivers across a vast stretch of America to be obliterated with pollution,” Hartl said, contending the rollback would speed extinction for dozens of endangered species. “People and wildlife need clean water to thrive. Destroying half of our nation’s streams and wetlands will be one of Trump’s ugliest legacies.”
The Trump rule narrows the Obama administration’s 2015 definition of what’s a protected body of water and effectively removes safeguards for some waterways that had been put into place with the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The administration says the changes would allow farmers to plow their fields without fear of unintentionally straying over the banks of a federally protected dry creek, bog or ditch. But the government’s own figures show it is real estate developers and those in other nonfarm business sectors that take out the most permits for impinging on wetlands and waterways, and that stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief.