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Biden administration broadens protection for U.S. waterways

On Friday, December 30, 2022, the Biden administration imposed a new rule expanding the definition of waterways that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority to regulate. This important move reverses a Trump-era change, while seeking to overcome almost a decade of challenges to EPA powers and to strike a balance aiming to protect both waterways and commerce.

In 2015, the Obama administration significantly and controversially widened the scope of the Clean Water Act – a landmark 1972 law aiming to gradually improve the health of polluted and degraded rivers and lakes – to cover even ephemeral streams and ponds. After four years, the Trump administration dramatically weakened EPA’s water pollution authority with a rule of its own that sparked major debates among environmentalists.

Now, in broadening once more EPA’s powers – by covering “traditional navigable waters,” including interstate waterways and upstream water sources which impact the health and quality of those waterways – the agency hopes “to deliver a durable definition of WOTUS [“Waters of the United States”] that safeguards our nation’s waters, strengthens economic opportunity, and protects people’s health while providing greater certainty for farmers, ranchers, and landowners,” as EPA administrator Michael Regan put it.

According to environmental scientists and activists, this change is central to restore the health of impaired waterways and fragile wildlife habitats, since it gives federal and state governments the authority to significantly limit the flow of water pollutants, including industrial effluents, livestock waste, and construction runoff.

“The rule’s clear and supportable definition of waters of the United States will allow for more efficient and effective implementation and provide the clarity long desired by farmers, industry, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders,” said Michael L. Connor, the U.S. Army’s assistant secretary for civil works.

However, the new rule has already drawn a significant amount of criticism too, particularly from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – which argued that the rule would only add to regulatory uncertainty and unpredictability, and could hinder the planning and construction of major government-funded infrastructures – as well as by several Republican officials claiming that the rule will unfairly burden farmers, miners, ranchers, infrastructure builders, and landowners.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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