WASHINGTON—The Obama administration issued a rule on Wednesday putting more small bodies of water and wetlands under federal protection to ensure clean drinking supplies, a move that has riled some lawmakers and business and farming groups.
The rule, issued jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is estimated to put about 3% more waterways throughout the U.S. under new federal jurisdiction. That will require a federal permit to pollute those waters and could restrict access altogether. Major waterways, like most rivers and lakes, are already under protection of the Clean Water Act and aren’t affected by Wednesday’s rule.
Agency officials said Wednesday that the rule would cover sources of drinking water for more than 100 million Americans by protecting wetlands and streams that are upstream from bigger rivers and lakes.
Much of the EPA’s focus has been on rolling out President Barack Obama’s climate agenda, which includes proposed carbon regulations pending at the agency. But the water rule issued Wednesday has gained prominence in its own right at the White House, with Mr. Obama citing it as another environmental accomplishment of his presidency.
“My administration has made historic commitments to clean water, from restoring iconic watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes to preserving more than a thousand miles of rivers and other waters for future generations,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Wednesday. “With today’s rule, we take another step towards protecting the waters that belong to all of us.”
Lawmakers from rural states and a coalition of interest groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the Portland Cement Association that represents cement manufacturers, have criticized the water rule, saying it could ultimately apply to bodies of water as small as ditches. They called it evidence of what they claim is bureaucratic overreach by the administration. Lawsuits challenging the final rule are expected.
EPA officials say the rule is necessary to clarify which waters should fall under the protection of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 after two Supreme Court rulings, in 2001 and 2006, called into question whether and to what extent 60% of U.S. waterways, especially streams and wetlands, should fall under federal jurisdiction.
“The rule only protects waters that have been historically covered under the Clean Water Act,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said on a conference call Wednesday. “The rule does not add any new requirement.”
Companies apply for permits under the Clean Water Act when doing a host of industrial activities, such as building roads, bridges and discharging of waste material like sewage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits along with the EPA, says it approves tens of thousands of such permits a year.
The rule seeks to require those kinds of permits for only those waterways that have physical features of flowing water, which could include ditches that could carry pollution downstream, the agency said. The American Farm Bureau was particularly concerned about whether the EPA would regulate shallow wetlands filled with water, known as prairie potholes. In a fact sheet, the EPA said it would protect such potholes and similar waterways “when they impact downstream waters,” and it would determine that on a case-by-case basis, agency officials said Wednesday.
The rule “unfortunately still considers many prairie potholes as waters that it will regulate, which doesn’t address all of the serious concerns of farmers and ranchers,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) said.
Environmentalists and some Democrats have praised the rule, saying it provides vital protection against pollution. “These long-overdue protections…will ensure cleaner wetlands, headwaters, brooks and streams that we use for swimming, fishing and other recreational activities,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Earlier this month, the GOP-controlled House passed legislation designed to thwart the rule, which was proposed last year. The Senate, also in Republican hands, is considering similar legislation, which has support from some Democrats in rural states, including Ms. Heitkamp.
“The rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input, and places landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell,” House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said in a statement Wednesday.
Wednesday’s water rule is one of nearly 10 that the EPA is slated to complete in coming months, including new carbon standards for trucks, a rule cutting methane emissions from oil and natural-gas production operations and rules cutting carbon emissions from power plants.