Trump administration will repeal a key Obama-era clean water rule

The Obama-era rule being repealed was designed to help protect drinking water. Above, Sabine Pass in Texas.
The Obama-era rule being repealed was designed to help protect drinking water. Above, Sabine Pass in Texas.Brandon Thibodeaux/New York Times/File 2018

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday announced the repeal of an Obama-era clean water regulation that had placed limits on polluting chemicals that could be used near streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water.

The rollback of the 2015 measure, known as the Waters of the United States rule, adds to a long list of environmental rules the administration has worked to weaken or undo in the past 2½ years. The efforts have focused on eliminating restrictions on fossil fuel pollution, including coal-fired power plants, auto tailpipes, and oil and gas leaks, but have touched on asbestos and pesticides.

The repeal of the water rule, expected to take effect within weeks, has implications far beyond the pollution that will now be allowed to flow freely into streams and wetlands from farms, mines, and factories. The Environmental Protection Agency aims to establish a stricter definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act, a precedent that could make it difficult for future administrations to protect waterways.

Patrick Parenteau, professor of environmental law at the University of Vermont, said that for conservative states and leaders who hold the view the Clean Water Act has been a burden for farmers and industry, “this is an opportunity to really drive a stake through the heart of federal water protection.”


Weakening the rule was a campaign pledge for President Trump, who characterized it as federal overreach that impinged on the rights of farmers, rural landowners, and real estate developers to use their properties as they see fit.

Trump signed an executive order in the early days of his administration directing federal agencies to begin the work of repealing and replacing it.

“Today’s final rule puts an end to an egregious power grab,” Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, said at a news conference on the repeal.


He said the rollback would mean “farmers, property owners, and businesses will spend less time and money determining whether they need a federal permit and more time building infrastructure.”

Agricultural groups praised the repeal. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the water rule had sparked outrage from farmers and ranchers and led to the largest effort to kill a regulation in his group’s history.

“When you take private property rights from a man who’s worked all his life,” Duvall said, “that is very intrusive to him, and it’s something he just can’t stand for.”

Environmentalists assailed the move.

“With many of our cities and towns living with unsafe drinking water, now is not the time to cut back on clean water enforcement,” said Laura Rubin, director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

The Obama rule, developed under 1972 Clean Water Act authority, was designed to limit pollution in about 60 percent of the nation’s bodies of water, protecting sources of drinking water for about one-third of the United States. It extended existing authority to limit pollution in large bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, to smaller bodies that drain into them, such as tributaries, streams, and wetlands.

Farmers using land near streams and wetlands were restricted from doing certain kinds of plowing and from planting certain crops and would have been required to obtain EPA permits to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers that could have run off into those bodies of water.


Those restrictions will now be lifted.

The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, which had worked together to write the Obama rule, are expected to issue a new, looser replacement rule by year’s end.

It’s expected to retain federal protections for larger bodies of water, the rivers that drain into them, and wetlands that are directly adjacent to those bodies of water.

But it will quite likely strip away protections for so-called ephemeral streams, in which water runs only during or after rainfalls, and for wetlands that are not adjacent to major bodies of water or connected to such bodies of water by a surface channel of water.

That would be a victory for the farmers and rural landowners who had lobbied the Trump administration aggressively to make the changes.

Lawyers said that the interim period between the completion of the legal repeal of the Obama rule and the implementation of the new Trump regulatin this year could be one of regulatory chaos for farmers and landowners, however.

“The Obama clean water rule had very clear lines defining which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, versus which waters are not, while repealing the rule means replacing those lines with case-by-case calls,” said Blan Holman, an expert on water regulation with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“This will be very unpredictable,” Holman said. “They are imposing a chaotic case-by-case program to replace clear, bright-line rules.”