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Trump administration eases federal restrictions on streams and wetlands

The Trump administration is moving ahead with a new rule to limit federal restrictions on many streams and wetlands. It's a win for farmers and real estate developers, but environmentalists are voicing concerns that the changes will encourage harm to the environment.

The changes, promised by President Trump in his first weeks in office, would sharply scale back the government's interpretation of which waterways qualify for protection against pollution and development under the half-century-old Clean Water Act, altering existing regulations with the administration's Navigable Waters Protection rule. Administration officials believe they're targeting federal rules and regulations that impose unnecessary burdens on businesses. The administration insists it still protects the environment from pollution. 

"Our rule protects the environment and our waterways while respecting the states and private property owners," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

The revised definitions articulate four categories of federally regulated waters: "the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters, like the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River; perennial and intermittent tributaries, such as College Creek, which flows to the James River near Williamsburg, Virginia; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments, such as Children's Lake in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania; and wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters," as the EPA said in a news release.

The changes have been sought by industry, developers and farmers, but are opposed by environmental advocates and public health officials. They say the changes would make it harder to maintain a clean water supply for the American public and would threaten habitat and wildlife.

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 business sectors that take out the most permits for impinging on wetlands and waterways, and stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief.

The rollback would be one of the most ambitious of the Trump administration's wide-ranging cuts in federal protections on the environment and public health. While many rollback efforts have targeted regulations adopted under the Obama administration, the draft clean-water plan released earlier would lift federal protections for many waterways and wetlands that have stood for decades under the Clean Water Act.

That includes protections for creek and river beds that run only in wet seasons or after rain or snow melt — the kind of so-called ephemeral and intermittent waterways that provide the majority of water for some dry states in the West. 

Environmentalists were quick to criticize the new rule.

"This sickening gift to polluters will allow wetlands, streams and rivers across a vast stretch of America to be obliterated with pollution," Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "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. We'll absolutely be fighting it in court."

Environmental Protection Network member Betsy Southerland, who ran the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA's Office of Water for years, called the new rule "scientifically indefensible and socially unjust." 

"This EPA's WOTUS definition, which will limit federal water quality protections to a very small set of waters and wetlands, will result in the impairment of drinking water, fisheries, and flood control for communities throughout the U.S," Southerland said in a statement. "It transfers the costs of pollution control and wetland protection from miners, oil and gas producers, and land developers — who will no longer be regulated — to downstream communities who will have to pay to protect themselves.  The new rule is scientifically indefensible and socially unjust."

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