Feds assert authority over streams, wetlands

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday moved to assert their authority over the nation's streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

The two agencies are putting forward a proposed rule that would clarify that the majority of the nation's streams and wetlands are under their jurisdiction. The rule would not protect new types of waters that have been exempt in the past, but the EPA would need to approve any project that might pollute the protected waterways.

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The rule would keep in place exemptions for farming, ranching and forestry practices.

“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

“Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”

Environmental groups cheered the rule, which will restore protections to many waters that they say were left at risk of pollution due to earlier court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that questioned the extent of the agency's protections.

“This proposal clarifies which waters are — and which are not — protected by the Clean Water Act. It will protect streams and wetlands that are currently in legal limbo," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. 

"The rule also specifically excludes many man-made ditches, ponds, and irrigation systems and honors the law’s current exemptions for normal farming, ranching, and forestry practices."

While the new rule does not affect a provision passed in the 2014 fiscal budget by Congress, which limits the administration's ability to rewrite a Bush-era stream protection rule, Republicans will likely view it as an unnecessary regulation.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a strong opponent of the EPA's climate rules, called the proposal a power grab that expands the agency's authority over streams.

"The ‘waters of the U.S.’ rule may be one of the most significant private property grabs in U.S. history,” Vitter said in a statement.

During a call with reporters on Tuesday, McCarthy attempted to counter the GOP arguments.

"This rule does not expand the Clean Water Act," McCarthy said.