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U.S. Finalizes Rules To Protect Rivers, Streams From Pollution

The Obama administration announced new clean water rules Wednesday that it says will protect sources of drinking water for 117 million Americans, rules welcomed by environmental groups, but bitterly opposed by congressional Republicans and farm state democrats.

The rules clarify which waterways fall under the Clean Water Act.

President Obama, in a statement released by the White House, said that in recent years:

"Court decisions have led to uncertainty and a need for clarification. One in three Americans now gets drinking water from streams lacking clear protection, and businesses and industries that depend on clean water face uncertainty and delay, which costs our economy every day. Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution. That's why I called on the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clear up the confusion and uphold our basic duty to protect these vital resources."

The rules have been in the works for some time, and have already drawn opposition from many Republicans in Congress, along with farm groups. The House approved a measure to block the new regulations earlier this month, and a similar bill is pending in the Senate.

David Luker, a cattle farmer in central Missouri, told NPR's Scott Horsley:

"Anyone that owns any land in this country that has any type of little creek or puddle or anything in it, in order for you to do anything on your property you're going to have to go to someone and ask permission from them to do it and then they're going to tell you how you have to do it and they don't care what it costs."

The Associated Press reports that Republican Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said his panel will consider a measure this summer and "continue our work to halt EPA's unprecedented land grab."

But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, writing in a blog post on the agency's website, said the measure doesn't add any new burdens for agriculture:

"The final rule doesn't create any new permitting requirements for agriculture, maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions, and even adds exclusions for features like artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from construction, and grass swales — all to make clear our goal is to stay out of agriculture's way. Just like before, a Clean Water Act permit is only needed if a water is going to be polluted or destroyed — and all exemptions for agriculture stay in place."

Environmental groups praised the new rules. Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica says the "common sense steps" will "ensure our waterways stay clean."

On the other side, according to Politico, are some of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington:

"The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have joined the American Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Farmers of America, pesticide manufacturers, mining companies, home builders, state and local governments, water utilities, flood control districts, the timber industry, railroads, real estate developers and even golf course operators among the more than 230 organizations and companies that have listed 'Waters of the United States' on federal lobbying disclosures since the administration proposed the rule in March 2014."

Several farm-state Democrats are also on record opposing the new rule. In a statement, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp pointed to bipartisan legislation she co-sponsored to send the rule back to the EPA and "require the agency to consult directly with states and those affected by the proposed rule, like local farmers and ranchers."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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