WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday announced a sweeping new clean water regulation meant to restore the federal government’s authority to limit pollution in the nation’s rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands.
The clean water rule, which would apply to about 60 percent of the nation’s water bodies, is part of a broader effort by Obama to use his executive authority to build an environmental legacy, without requiring new legislation from the Republican-controlled Congress.
But it also opened up a broad new front for attacks from business interests such as farmers, property developers, fertilizer and pesticide makers, oil and gas producers, and golf course owners, who contend that the rule would stifle economic growth and intrude on property owners’ rights.
Industry groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the US Chamber of Commerce, are already preparing lawsuits to challenge the rule, and legal experts say the battle over control of the nation’s waters could end up before the Supreme Court, which in recent years has cast doubt on the government’s authority to regulate certain waterways.
Republicans in Congress point to the rule as an example of executive overreach by the Obama administration. This summer, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a final set of regulations intended to counter climate change by limiting greenhouse gas pollution from power plants.
Already, Republican lawmakers are advancing legislation on Capitol Hill meant to block or delay both the climate change and clean water rules.
In announcing the rule, Obama said, “One in three Americans now gets drinking water from streams lacking clear protection, and businesses and industries that depend on clean water face uncertainty and delay, which costs our economy every day. Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution.
“With today’s rule,” he added, “we take another step towards protecting the waters that belong to all of us.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, called the rule “a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs,” adding, “House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders” to reject the rule.
The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed the rule, known as Waters of the United States, last spring. The agency has held more than 400 meetings about it with outside groups and read more than 1 million public comments as it wrote the final language.
The rule is being issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gave the federal government broad authority to limit pollution in major water bodies, like the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River, and Puget Sound, as well as streams and wetlands that drain into those larger waters.
But two Supreme Court decisions related to clean water protection, in 2001 and in 2006, created legal confusion about whether the federal government had the authority to regulate the smaller streams and headwaters, and other water sources such as wetlands.
EPA officials say the new rule will clarify that authority, allowing the government to once again limit pollution in those smaller bodies of water — although it does not restore the full scope of regulatory authority granted by the 1972 law.
The EPA also contends that the new rule will not give it the authority to regulate additional waters that were not covered under the 1972 law.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” the EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, said in a written statement.
“Today’s rule marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the Clean Water Act,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army Corps of Engineers, which coauthored the rule.
Environmentalists praised the new rule, calling it an important step that would lead to significantly cleaner natural bodies of water and healthier drinking water.
“Our rivers, lakes, and drinking water can only be clean if the streams that flow into them are protected,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America. “That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”
A coalition of industry groups, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, has waged an aggressive campaign calling on the EPA to withdraw or revamp the rule.
Farmers fear that the rule could impose major new costs and burdens, requiring them to pay fees for environmental assessments and to obtain permits just to till the soil near gullies, ditches, or dry streambeds where water flows only when it rains. A permit is required for any activity, like farming or construction, that creates a discharge into water covered under the Clean Water Act or affects the health of it, like filling a wetland or blocking a stream.