Clean Water Rule Under Threat

The Federal Government is threatening to repeal the Clean Water Rule and the protections to essential wetlands and small streams. Thank you everyone who submitted comments to help protect clean water. Friends of the Rappahannock will continue to fight for a strong clean water act to protect the Rappahannock River.


The 2015 Clean Water Rule outlined which bodies of water would be automatically protected by the Clean Water Act. Large bodies like lakes and rivers were listed, but the rule also included streams, ponds and other, smaller wetland features that have important effects on these bigger, “navigable” waterways.

The rule received criticism from industries long opposed to the effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act. The rule is now tied up in court, as businesses and agricultural groups argue that it is an example of federal overreach and a threat to industry.

President Trump and his EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, have vowed to eliminate the Clean Water Rule. The President recently signed an Executive Order directing the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the 2015 rule. In doing so, President Trump began the process to repeal and replace the current rule which would be a huge loss for clean water.

What is the Clean Water Rule and Why is it Important? 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adopted the Clean Water Rule in May 2015 to clear up longstanding confusion over which water bodies the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act protects. The rule more clearly defines what kinds of waters get guaranteed coverage and which ones are exempt.

More than 117 million Americans receive drinking water from public systems that draw supply from headwater, seasonal, or rain-dependent streams.

Wetlands cover roughly 110 million acres in the continental U.S., which filter pollution from contaminated runoff and replenish groundwater.

Twenty-eight percent of Virginians get their drinking water from sources that rely on small streams that are protected by the Clean Water Rule.

Protections were restored to 5,290 miles of streams that feed into Virginia’s drinking water sources.

EPA estimates that the rule will provide at least $339 million and up to $572 million annually in benefits to the public, including reducing flooding, filtering pollution, providing wildlife habitat, supporting hunting and fishing, and recharging groundwater.

Before the Clean Water Rule, confusion hamstrung law enforcement and regulators, which hindered pollution investigations. EPA enforcement staff revealed that an estimated 489 enforcement cases in just a few-year period were adversely affected.

What Does It Mean for a Water Body to be Protected by the Clean Water Act?

For protected water bodies, numerous pollution prevention, control, and cleanup programs apply. For example:

  • States must identify and prepare plans to clean up protected waters that don’t meet state water quality standards (including the Chesapeake Bay TMDL);
  • Industrial and commercial developers ordinarily must obtain approval before discharging solid material into protected waters, before altering wetlands and degrading lakes and streams; and these dischargers must mitigate their impact by creating, preserving, or enhancing other water resources;
  • Nobody may discharge “any radiological, chemical, or biological warfare agent, any high-level radioactive waste, or any medical waste” into covered waters; and more!

What new protections does the Clean Water Rule provide?

The Clean Water Rule or WOTUS, clarifies the definition of a jurisdictional “water of the United States” which is protected by the Clean Water Act. In doing so, it provides for the protection of essential ecosystem types which were previously ambiguous as to whether they should be protected.  These adjacent wetlands, pocket wetlands, and ephemeral streams play an invaluable role in protecting water quality for recreation, drinking water, and habitat for fish and wildlife and need to be protected!

How Does the Current Administration Propose to Weaken Protections?

In February, the President signed an executive order starting a process to repeal the Clean Water Rule and replace it with a set of rules that would substantially weaken the regulations that the Reagan administration adopted. Specifically, the order tells the agencies to “consider interpreting” the Clean Water Act as the late Justice Antonin Scalia did in a 2006 opinion. The agencies, led by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, have started planning actions that would do just that.

This course of action would disable federal pollution safeguards for streams unless they are “relatively permanent,” and exclude wetlands that do not have a “continuous surface connection” to other covered waters. The implications of that are astonishing; it could mean the loss of pollution protections for the nearly 60% of streams in the lower 48 states that don’t flow year-round — almost 2 million miles of streams. It also could mean the end of Clean Water Act protection for countless wetlands – perhaps even most of the 110 million acres in the continental U.S. – because they don’t have a surface connection to “relatively permanent” waters.

Streams and wetlands provide some of the most critical ecosystem services, including water filtration services supporting clean drinking water and water storage services protecting communities from flooding and from drought. Unlike the Clean Water Rule, the proposed clean water rollback plan ignores the scientific evidence demonstrating how water bodies influence downstream water quality and water flows.

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