EPA looks to clarify regulations on streams

Environmental regulators are starting work on broad new rules about the number of streams, brooks and ponds they are able to regulate.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was releasing a draft report from its independent science advisory board showing the way that smaller estuaries, wetlands and other bodies of water are related to larger lakes and rivers.

That report amounts to a first step by the agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to allow the EPA to establish its authority over those smaller bodies of water.

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The EPA says those new rules are necessary to clear up confusion about which waters it can regulate under the Clean Water Act caused by two recent Supreme Court cases.

“The proposed joint rule will provide greater consistency, certainty, and predictability nationwide by providing clarity for determining where the Clean Water Act applies and where it does not,” the heads of the EPA’s water and research offices wrote in an agency blog post on Tuesday. “These improvements are necessary to reduce costs and minimize delays in the permit process and protect waters that are vital to public health, the environment and economy.”

A draft version of the rule was sent to the White House on Tuesday to be reviewed by other federal agencies.

Republicans in Congress immediately claimed that the EPA was over-stepping its bounds.

“The EPA wants to use this study to justify a massive regulatory power grab under the Clean Water Act,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in a statement. “The study could be used to expand EPA’s control far beyond interstate waters, stripping away the power of states and allowing the EPA to regulate virtually every mud puddle in America. The EPA should slow down, and allow a full and fair review of the study in context by the public and independent scientists.”

Smith added that his committee will “closely evaluate” the report to make sure it was guided by “independent, objective and transparent” science.

A new regulatory effort would not be the EPA’s first attempt. The agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have previously prepared guidance on which waters were covered by the federal law, but that effort had languished under review at the White House since 2011.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) added that the new EPA effort “doesn’t solve anything.”

“While EPA seemingly noticed the American people’s opposition to its earlier guidance to define ‘waters of the United States,’ I’m afraid they are moving forward with the same expensive regulations and requirements in mind,” he said in a statement.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, lauded the release of the new report.

“The science is extensive, but the concept is basic: Water flows and we all live downstream,” Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said in a statement. “If we want to have clean drinking water for our families and swimmable, fishable waterways in our communities, we need to protect all waters regardless of size and regardless of location.”

The report looks at more than 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies and analyses, and concludes that what happens in streams and most wetlands affects waters downstream.

The EPA is accepting comments from the public on its report through October.