WASHINGTON, DC, May 28, 2015 (ENS) – One in three Americans, about 117 million people, get their drinking water from streams that lacked clear protection before a new Clean Water Rule issued Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Protection for many U.S. streams and wetlands has been confusing, complex, and time-consuming as the result of two Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and in 2006.

The new rule is intended to provide clarity on protections for these smaller water bodies and headwater streams under the Clean Water Act.

“The rule is grounded in law and the latest science, and is shaped by public input,” the agencies said in a statement.

In developing the rule, the agencies held more than 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country, reviewed over a million public comments, and listened to perspectives from all sides.

“Our rivers, lakes, and drinking water can only be clean if the streams that flow into them are protected,” said Margie Alt, executive director with the nonprofit Environment America.

Alt called the new rule “the biggest victory for clean water in a decade,” but warned that it could be blocked in Congress.

Republicans who control the U.S. Senate are determined to use their authority derail the Clean Water Rule.

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Rocky stream, Hidden Twin Lakes, Wyoming, 2012 (Photo by Doug Knuth)

Last Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee adopted a measure by Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, to derail the rule.

“Instead of reaching a reasonable solution, today the EPA has ignored millions of Americans and taken more control over private land in our country,” said Barrasso. There is bipartisan agreement that Washington bureaucrats have gone beyond their authority and have no business regulating irrigation ditches, isolated ponds and other ‘non-navigable’ waters as waters of the United States.”

“Under this outrageously broad rule,” complained Barrasso, “Washington will have control over how family farmers, ranchers and small businesses not only use their water, but also their privately owned land.”

The two agencies say that, to the contrary, “The Clean Water Rule addresses the pollution and destruction of waterways – not land use or private property rights.”

Still, this summer, the Senate could use the Congressional Review Act block the new clean water rule, setting the stage for a veto fight with President Barack Obama.

EPA and the Army say that in drafting the rule they utilized the latest science, including a report summarizing more than 1,200 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies which showed that small streams and wetlands play an integral role in the health of larger downstream water bodies.

“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.”

The rule ensures that waters protected under the Clean Water Act are more precisely defined and predictably determined. The agencies say the new rule will make permitting less costly, easier, and faster for businesses and industry.

The new rule creates no new permitting requirements for agriculture and maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions.

A Clean Water Act permit is only needed if a water is going to be polluted or destroyed. The Clean Water Rule only protects the types of waters that have historically been covered under the Clean Water Act, the two agencies explain.

The rule does not regulate most ditches and does not regulate groundwater, shallow subsurface flows, or tile drains. It does not make changes to current policies on irrigation or water transfers or apply to erosion in a field.

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Sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl use Sandhill Wildlife Area in central Wisconsin as a stopover during seasonal migrations. (Photo by Wisconsin Dept. Natural Resources)

The agencies said that over the past 10 years they have received requests for a rulemaking from members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, scientists, and the public.

Darcy said, “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.”

Climate change makes protection of water resources even more essential, said the two agencies, stating, “Protecting streams and wetlands will improve our nation’s resilience to climate change.”

Streams and wetlands trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, filter out pollutants, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

Climate change impacts such as drought, sea level rise, stronger storms, and warmer temperatures threaten the quantity and quality of America’s water.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said understanding the clean water-climate change link is crucial to protecting America’s precious water.

“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,” McCarthy said.

The Clean Water Act protects navigable waterways and their tributaries. The new 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.

The rule protects waters that are next to rivers and lakes and their tributaries because science shows that they impact downstream waters. For the first time, the rule sets boundaries on covering nearby waters that are physical and measurable.

Many farmers and ranchers spoke in support of the new clean water rule.

“Our customers expect quality, and that means raising our bison naturally, where they eat native grasses and drink clean water,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a south Texas rancher and owner of Thunder Heart Bison and the 13,000-acre Shape Ranch. “As a rancher who depends on clean water, I strongly support President Obama and the EPA’s actions to protect Texas streams and wetlands.”

“You can’t have healthy food without healthy soil, and you can’t have healthy soil without clean water,” said Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “This rule will provide healthy returns for farmers, consumers and ecological systems across the country.”

The Clean Water Rule will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

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