background_fid (1).jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

EPA Confirms The Agency Is Changing Water Policy


Nate Rott is here with me. He covers the environment for NPR. And we're talking about the Trump administration's decision to repeal an Obama-era regulation protecting wetlands and streams from pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency confirmed this yesterday, saying they want to give farmers, home builders and landowners more certainty. And Nate, can you just start with how this Obama-era regulation was working?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: So that might be giving it too much credit almost because...


ROTT: (Laughter) You know, from the very beginning when this rule was implemented in 2015, it was facing challenges - legal challenges, political challenges, all the above. But basically, what the regulation was trying to do was expand federal water protections under the Clean Water Act to rivers, streams, wetlands, lakes - some argued even ponds - that didn't officially have protections before.

The Clean Water Act largely limits pollution in what they - what are called navigable waters. Think big rivers, you know, big enough to float a boat. But in the 40-plus years since the Clean Water Act was - went into effect, court decisions, including a Supreme Court decision, left the door open for protections of waterways to be expanded. So not just, you know, rivers but the streams that feed into those rivers or the wetlands next to them. Water systems are connected, right?

GREENE: Right.

ROTT: (Laughter) So Obama wanted to officially extend federal water protections to that larger connected system.

GREENE: But it never got off the ground, really, because of all these legal challenges and everything. But - so you had farmers. You had miners. You had a lot of people pushing Trump administration for this rollback of this Obama-era regulation. What was their central argument?

ROTT: Well, you know, like, look - without question, the - this rule certainly expanded federal protections to new waterways that didn't maybe automatically have them before. And that alone was fuel for criticism from miners, farmers, developers who saw this as a federal land grab and argued that it was an overinterpretation of what the Clean Water Act itself allows the federal government to do. So they were thrilled to see the Trump administration carry through on its promise to repeal this.

But as with a lot of policies, one way or the other, it's kind of hard to know what the on-the-ground impact was versus a lot of the rhetoric that surrounded this policy. And part of that was because, as I mentioned before, it was challenged right away.

GREENE: So the head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, I want to give a listen to this. This is the announcement he made yesterday.


ANDREW WHEELER: When President Trump took office, he immediately set in motion a process to remove and replace regulatory burdens that were stifling American innovation and economic development. The Obama administration's 2015 Waters Of The U.S. definition was at the top of the list.

GREENE: So, Nate, this goes beyond saying, hey, this is a regulation that we needed to scrap or roll back to give more certainty for farmers and let them know that they don't have to worry about their ponds. This goes to, like, a fundamental goal of the Trump administration to roll back President Obama's environmental policy. Is that fair?

ROTT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, President Trump, before he was president, was pretty clear that that was going to be one of his top, you know, agendas when he - if he was to take office. And, you know, Wheeler, when he was making that announcement yesterday at the National Association of Manufacturers headquarters in D.C., he was bragging about how effective his agency, the EPA, has been at deregulation. I think he said they've done - they've taken 46 deregulatory actions, and they have 45 more in the work.

You know, and that's just one agency. That doesn't include Interior, and it doesn't include other agencies that are also doing deregulation. Of course, he didn't say that many of those deregulatory actions are being held up in court, and it is very likely that this rollback will face the same sort of challenges.

GREENE: NPR's Nate Rott here at NPR West with me. Nate, thanks so much.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.