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Trump EPA Dramatically Reduces Amount Of Waterways Under Federal Protection


While much of Washington focuses on the impeachment trial of President Trump, his administration keeps advancing his deregulatory agenda. Today the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule that shrinks the number of waterways that are protected by the Clean Water Act. It's a major shift with implications for agriculture, industry and water quality. NPR's Nathan Rott joins us now.

Hey, Nate.


CHANG: All right. So today's new rule, it limits the waterways that get federal protection. What is going on here?

ROTT: All right, so what we're talking about here is really the scope of the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is pretty clear in that its purpose is to limit the type and amount of pollutants that can be discharged into the country's, you know, streams, rivers, lakes, all sorts of waterways. Where it's less clear is around the question of, which of those rivers and streams and waterways specifically should get that protection? That has been a point of contention for decades.

The Supreme Court has weighed in a couple times. The Obama administration, in 2015, tried clarifying, and in doing so, it expanded the number of waterways that got federal protection, which was not well received - unsurprisingly - by farmers, ranchers and developers. They called it a federal overreach. President Trump, being a developer himself, felt very much the same way. He undid that Obama rule last year, and this is his replacement. And it is what we're seeing today.

CHANG: OK, so just help me picture this. What will not get protection now under these new rules?

ROTT: So I think it's important to really hammer home a quick point. The protections we're talking about here are just federal. The Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, has been very keen to point out that state protections will still exist for many of these waterways, though, you know, also important - protections vary state to state.

That said, the biggest changes that we'll see under this new rule have to do with wetlands and smaller streams. It's estimated that about half of the nation's wetlands will lose federal protection under this new rule, which is noteworthy because wetlands, you know, not only provide habitat for tons of species, but they also help with flood control. And they filter a lot of the water we drink.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROTT: Ephemeral streams - that's, you know, creeks or streams that only run after rain or snowmelt - they are going to lose all federal protections. They are no longer covered under the Clean Water Act under this new rule. And that's a very big deal, particularly, you know, in the arid Southwest - California, where I am - where the vast majority of waterways are considered to be ephemeral.

CHANG: So I imagine that environmental groups are not happy about this change.

ROTT: You would be correct. They are not happy at all. They're worried that, you know, some of the impacts that I just mentioned - that this could have negative impacts on drinking water, habitat for species because, you know, as we all know, waterways are connected. There are also concerns that state environmental agencies will not be able to pick up the slack here. And the main issue that they're raising is over the science behind this decision.

A science advisory board at the EPA posted a draft letter last month saying that the new rule - which was proposed, I think, at that point - is, quote, "in conflict with established science." The Trump administration and the EPA strongly disagrees with that assessment. But I think ultimately, you know, like all of these environmental rollbacks, it's going to be decided in the courts.

CHANG: The courts - so you expect groups to bring legal challenges to this rule change.

ROTT: Yeah, no question. Environmental groups, Democratic states - which we've seen, like I said, with all of these Trump rollbacks, which makes, you know, the next election really interesting - one of the many things that makes the next election really interesting because the long-term outlook of these rollbacks are really going to depend on whether he's reelected.

CHANG: That is NPR's Nate Rott.

Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.