Biden Administration Moves to Reverse Trump Rollbacks of Clean Water Act

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

One more of the Trump administration’s rollbacks will meet its demise as EPA Administrator Michael Regan and the Biden administration are planning to reinstate protections for many marshes, streams, and wetlands — expanding again the coverage of the Clean Water Act under the “Waters of the U.S.” or “WOTUS” rule. Regan said that the EPA found Trump’s rollbacks would lead to “significant environmental degradation.” While environmentalists are praising the move, conservatives and oil industry allies criticize the return to regulation as “onerous” and say that it will hurt oil workers and farmers. 

Why This Matters: Since the late 1700s, 221 million acres of wetlands have been drained in the U.S. for agricultural use. This development has had severe consequences, including fertilizer and pollution runoff threatening drinking water for millions of people. Additionally, wetlands are crucial to protecting communities from worsening storm systems caused by climate change. Marshes act as sinks for floodwaters, preventing damage to infrastructure and loss of human life. Trump’s rollbacks of the Obama-era rules have had severe consequences for local communities and wildlife because the Trump rule greatly diminished the government’s ability to control pollution and retain wetlands. Reinstating the protections would be one more step toward the Biden administration goal of protecting 30% of all lands and waters by 2030.

Dreams Downstream

“Every day the rule is in place, we are losing protections for 92 percent of wetlands, waters, and streams,” said Kelly Moser, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. But experts say that damage isn’t isolated to development sites. Those 333 projects no longer in need of permits include the RiverPort commercial, industrial and residential park near Savannah, Georgia. Experts say that the massive development threatens a nearby wildlife reserve, which is home to gum trees, maple trees, and migrating waterfowl.

Bill Stanley, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, says an increase in fertilizer runoff after Trump’s rollbacks has threatened Ohioans. “‘Nutrients’ doesn’t sound like a bad word,” he said, “but when you get too many of them, it causes major problems for our water quality in Ohio.” But conservatives and ranchers disagree. Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said, “this is a gut punch to Iowans, and I will continue to stand up to onerous regulations the administration may seek to impose on our hard-working families.” Ranchers agree and say that the Obama-era rules would have made it painstaking to raise livestock in the region.

Reinstating the protections won’t be simple. First, the Biden administration will have to remove the Trump administration regulation. Then it will have to write new rules, but the Clean Water Act has been under legal scrutiny for decades. The Obama administration wrote its rules to work around a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that also narrowed the reach of the Clean Water Act; today’s much more conservative court may come to the same conclusion as the Court did in 2006 and scale back the rule again. Whatever the Biden administration writes, says Patrick Parenteau, a professor of natural resources law at Vermont Law School, “it’s got to be a rule that gets five votes on the Supreme Court, and that’s going to be … difficult.”

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