EPA Finalizes the Clean Water Rule to Protect Streams and Wetlands

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the Army Corps of Engineers, finalized the Clean Water Rule last week to ensure that waters protected under the Clean Water Act are more precisely defined and predictably determined. The rule will provide protection to two million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands that were not clearly designated under the previous version of the Clean Water Act.

These waters will now be protected from pollution and degradation. Additionally, the EPA has stated that the changes to the rule will make permitting less costly, easier, and faster for businesses and industry by clearing up confusion over which waters are actually protected. The rule, however, does not create any new permitting requirements for agriculture and maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions.

“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “Protecting our water sources is a critical component of adapting to climate change impacts like drought, sea level rise, stronger storms, and warmer temperatures – which is why EPA and the Army have finalized the Clean Water Rule to protect these important waters, so we can strengthen our economy and provide certainty to American businesses.”

This rule is especially important for drinking water. According to the EPA, one out of every three Americans gets drinking water from sources that were not clearly covered in the previous version of the rule. Specifically, the Clean Water Rule incorporates the following:

  • Clearly defines and protects tributaries that impact the health of downstream waters. The Clean Water Act protects navigable waterways and their tributaries. The rule says that a tributary must show physical features of flowing water – a bed, bank, and ordinary high water mark – to warrant protection. The rule provides protection for headwaters that have these features and science shows can have a significant connection to downstream waters.
  • Provides certainty in how far safeguards extend to nearby waters. The rule protects waters that are next to rivers and lakes and their tributaries because science shows that they impact downstream waters. The rule sets boundaries on covering nearby waters for the first time that are physical and measurable.
  • Protects the nation’s regional water treasures. Science shows that specific water features can function like a system and impact the health of downstream waters. The rule protects prairie potholes, Carolina and Delmarva bays, pocosins, western vernal pools in California, and Texas coastal prairie wetlands when they impact downstream waters.
  • Focuses on streams, not ditches. The rule limits protection to ditches that are constructed out of streams or function like streams and can carry pollution downstream. So ditches that are not constructed in streams and that flow only when it rains are not covered.
  • Maintains the status of waters within Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems. The rule does not change how those waters are treated and encourages the use of green infrastructure.
  • Reduces the use of case-specific analysis of waters. Previously, almost any water could be put through a lengthy case-specific analysis, even if it would not be subject to the Clean Water Act. The rule significantly limits the use of case-specific analysis by creating clarity and certainty on protected waters and limiting the number of similarly situated water features.

“Today’s rule marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the Clean Water Act,” said Assistant Secretary for the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy. “This is a generational rule and completes another chapter in history of the Clean Water Act. This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

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