The Obama administration is adding new protections to US waterways, attempting to keep drinking water clean by clearing up which bodies the 1972 Clean Water Act does and does not protect from pollution. The act already protects navigable waterways, but today's rule extends it to cover additional tributaries and nearby bodies that may feed into downstream waters. Anyone planning to pollute or destroy those waters will now have to obtain a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency, which jointly proposed these rules along with the US Army.
"Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution."
The changes, known as the Clean Water Rule, are controversial in some circles, which see it as devaluing land and forcing farmers to jump through unnecessary hoops. But the government says its intention isn't to regulate waters that have never before been covered — it's just to regulate waters that were once covered under the act but later lost coverage due to legal ambiguity and new interpretations of the law. Two Supreme Court cases in the 2000s narrowed the act's scope, removing protections from bodies of water that had previously been included. "Court decisions have led to uncertainty and a need for clarification," President Obama says in a statement. "Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution." These rules are meant to begin protecting some of those waters once again.
The EPA says that the Supreme Court's rulings left around 60 percent of the United States' streams, as well as millions of acres of wetlands, in a "confusing and complex" legal situation. It's not stated how much of that is being cleared up with this rule, but the agency adds that around 117 million Americans — about one-third of the US population — have been receiving drinking water from streams that are today gaining "clear" protection.
"For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too," EPA administrator Gina McCarthy says in a statement. McCarthy also says that these protections serve as a defense against climate change issues, like drought, rising sea levels, and warmer temperatures.