Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers planned to announce the new policies Monday. The public rule-making process is likely to elicit fierce debate over how best to manage hundreds of thousands of miles of small streams, tributaries and wetlands that are isolated or unconnected to a larger body of water.
Details were unavailable, but environmentalists said they feared the policies will scale back crucial protections in the Clean Water Act, allowing polluters to avoid getting permits and developers to fill more swamps and bogs.
Home builders and other developers said they hoped the policies would make clear that the government cannot require a permit when a landowner wants to fill an isolated wetland located within a single state and not used for navigation.
As a first step, the EPA will issue a notice for comment on various proposals it is considering under a revised definition of protected and unprotected waterways under Clean Water Act. Agency spokesman John Millett said the notice was expected Monday.
Dave Hewitt, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said his agency's update of an interim guidance letter would help regulators further interpret a Supreme Court ruling in January 2001. Many wetlands experts, including biologists and developers, have said the previous letter seemed to raise more questions than it answered.
The Corps of Engineers oversees permit applications from people wanting to put dredged or fill material into navigable waters, while EPA develops the guidelines for issuing or denying those permits.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the corps overstepped its authority when it blocked construction of a Chicago-area landfill in the mid-1990s on the site of a sand and gravel pit mining operation abandoned around 1960.
The corps had found that the old mining site had given way to forestland and a scattering of permanent and seasonal ponds used as habitat for migratory birds.
In the ruling, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that the intent of the Clean Water Act was to protect navigable waters and adjoining wetlands used in commerce, not isolated bodies of water.
At a congressional hearing last September, Dominic Izzo, the Army's principal deputy assistant secretary for civil works, and Robert Fabricant, EPA's general counsel, said they were trying to decide what "categories of water" fell within their jurisdiction. And they said they were working on new rules "to reinforce the appropriate scope" of the Clean Water Act.
Anticipating the new policies, the National Association of Home Builders criticized the agencies as having a "penchant for regulating any kind of activity that would bar a floating water molecule from migrating from Minnesota down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico through a network of culverts, ditches and streams that are dry 10 months out of the year."
Environmentalists also were critical, for other reasons. Nancy Stoner, director of the clean water project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the agencies were using the 2001 ruling to revive an outdated notion for protecting waters dating to the 19th century.
"The earlier laws were focused on navigability," she said.
Bob Perciasepe, who was EPA's top administrator for water and air policies in the Clinton administration, said the Bush administration's new policies would reduce, not expand, clean-water protections.
"The only people who can benefit from this are the people who don't want to be regulated under the Clean Water Act," said Perciasepe, now senior vice president for public policy at the National Audubon Society.
"At a time when the reports out of EPA continue to show that over 40 percent of the water in the United States isn't meeting water quality standards," he said, "the debate ought to be how to clean up the waters, not whether they should be included in the Clean Water Act."