WOTUS withdrawal proposed, farm groups happy

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers released a proposal Tuesday to repeal the 2015 Clean Water Rule, the latest move by the Trump administration to unwind environmental regulations put in place under former President Barack Obama.

The agencies are working to rescind the rule, known as the Waters of the United States rule, and reinstate the language of the rule before it was changed in 2015.

The rule updated the federal Clean Water Act to define what waterways — including streams, rivers and other bodies — can be regulated by the federal government, stirring anger by the agriculture and energy industries, which said it gave regulators too much authority.

WOTUS, as it's commonly known, would redefine how "waters of the United States" are subject to federal regulations under the Clean Water Act. A wide range of farm groups strongly opposed WOTUS, which sought to protect clean drinking water by increasing federal authority to regulate major river and lakes, as well as smaller streams and wetlands.

Supporters say WOTUS would have ended ambiguities over who controls navigable rivers and interstate waterways, and enhanced efforts to maintain clean water supplies.

Tuesday's action was widely expected.

"We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation's farmers and businesses," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said.

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972 and last amended in 1987, is intended to protect the nation's waters from pollution.

The rule — part of the Obama administration's environmental efforts — had been criticized by President Donald Trump, who in February issued an executive order directing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Army Corps of Engineers to review it. Pruitt's recommendation to revoke the rule is based on that review.

Some lawmakers and officials from states with large rural areas praised the move.

"Out-of-state D.C. bureaucrats shouldn't impose regulations that hurt Montana farmers, ranchers and landowners," said the state's Republican senator, Steve Daines.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture welcomed the change, saying the 2015 rule was flawed and "fraught" with procedural issues, "making it necessary to start over with a new rule that protects clean water and respects state regulatory authority."

Farm group leaders were predictably pleased with the change as well.

"This is good news. There has just been so much uncertainty for growers," said Theresia Gillie, a Hallock, Minnesota, farmer and president of her state Soybean Growers Association.

A number of national ag groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Corn Growers Association, expressed strong support for Tuesday's announcement.

Environmental groups criticized the move, saying it ignores public input and would put parts of the country like the Midwestern Great Lakes at risk.

But there were critics, too, including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation. The groups said in written statements that EPA's decision threatens wildlife and businesses that rely on clean water for hunting and fishing.

"This foolish rollback of clean water standards rejects years of work building stakeholder input and scientific data support, and it imperils the progress for safe clean drinking water in the Midwest," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Others said the rollback will lead to pollution in some of the country's most sensitive wetland areas.

"Revoking the clean water rule will open the door to the pollution and bulldozing of some of America's most important wetlands," said Kierán Suckling, executive director at the Center for Biological Diversity

The rule had been placed on hold in 2015 by a federal court appeals court.