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EPA weakens water protection rules following Supreme Court decision

Wetlands are critical for wildlife and water quality.
Tom Koerner
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Flickr Creative Commons
Wetlands are critical for wildlife and water quality.

News brief 

The Environmental Protection Agency has removed protections from more than half of the country’s wetlands. The agency said the change is designed to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The court’s May decision ended a dispute spanning multiple presidential administrations. It involved defining the federal government‘s power to control pollution and water quality in smaller waterways, including some wetlands, ditches and many intermittent streams.

The Biden Administration wanted to expand the EPA’s reach, but the Sackett v. EPAruling – about a jurisdictional dispute in Idaho – dealt a blow to that plan.

“While I am disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Sackett case, EPA and [the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] have an obligation to apply this decision alongside our state co-regulators, Tribes, and partners," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement. “We’ve moved quickly to finalize amendments to the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ to provide a clear path forward that adheres to the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

The EPA’s revised Waters of the United States Rule means many regulatory decisions will now move to the state and tribal level. The new rules go into effect immediately, and several conservation groups are unhappy with them.

“We were disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and this is the inevitable result: a severe erosion of our nation’s 50-year commitment to clean water,” Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, said in a statement. “We all live downstream, but apparently the Supreme Court doesn’t believe in gravity. This will make our rivers and streams less fishable, swimmable, and drinkable.”

Several agriculture organizations said they were happy to see the removal of what they consider burdensome regulations. However, some were still upset with the new rules overall, arguing they’re unclear and not far-reaching enough.

“EPA had a golden opportunity to write a Waters of the U.S. Rule that’s fair to farmers and stands the test of time, but instead chose to continue government overreach and revise only a small slice of the rule that was rejected by the Supreme Court,” American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall in a statement.

The Sackett ruling limited the EPA’s reach under the Clean Water Act. The ruling says the agency can regulate streams, rivers, oceans, rivers and lakes – and wetlands with a "continuous surface connection to those bodies."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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