The Trump administration’s repeal of an Obama-era clean water rule received praise Thursday from the business and agricultural community in New York, but from environmental groups, not so much.
President Donald Trump had vowed to repeal the 2015 rule that expanded the definition of “waters of the United States,” creating more federal regulations under the 1972 Clean Water Act to protect streams and wetlands from pollution, including temporary streams that crop up after rainstorms.
The bill extended protections to some of the streams in the Hudson River watershed, and more than 40,000 miles in New York, according to Riverkeeper, an environmental organization focused on protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler had said in a press release that the rule was an “overreach in the federal regulation of U.S. waters” and that a new definition would “provide greater regulatory certainty for farmers, landowners, home builders and developers nationwide.”
On Thursday, Pete Lopez, a regional administrator for the EPA, announced the official repeal of the rule during a press conference in Albany.
“Throughout New York, New Jersey and the Caribbean, we rely on how to balance water resources to maintain environmental quality while ensuring economic opportunity,” Lopez said in a news release. “Repealing this rule and providing clear definition of this balance will allow us to protect our environment while allowing the economy to flourish.”
Lopez was accompanied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also was part of repealing the rule, as well as representatives from the New York Farm Bureau and the Business Council of New York State for the announcement.
Neither Lopez nor Wheeler said how the repeal would protect water quality.
David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau, said farmers are stewards of the nation’s water, but he called the 2015 rule “unreasonable and unworkable.”
“It made protecting water quality and conservation efforts more difficult and created huge liabilities for farmers, especially when what waters would be regulated under the old rule could not be clearly defined,” Fisher said in a news release. “This turned farming into a guessing game on which land use required federal permits and what did not.”
The Business Council of New York State also commended the EPA for the rule change, as did the Associated General Contractors of New York State.
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“An expanded federal permitting process would slow economic growth by increasing the cost of, and delaying, necessary improvements to public and private infrastructure,” said Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the contractors organization.
Dan Shapley, water quality program director for Riverkeeper, said the rollback will have a greater impact in Western states, but it could impact what are called “Class C” streams in New York. Those are streams used for fishing and non-contact recreation, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Every lake, every river, starts someplace, and where it starts is with these smallest streams and these tiny wetlands,” Shapley said.
Riverkeeper is now looking to the state to increase its regulations on these waterways.
“It’s another outrage from the Trump administration on basic environmental protections,” Shapley said. “We are under assault from the administration on these things. I would say the most important thing that we want to see happen in response is New York state to take action to protect our streams, and fill the gap that’s now being left by the federal government.”
The Adirondack Council, an environmental organization protecting the wilderness of the Adirondack Park, said Thursday’s announcement was disappointing.
John Sheehan, director of communications, said the Adirondack Park’s waters are regulated under a number of state rules “that are stricter than federal rules,” but the rollback could still have an impact.
Projects smaller than 12 acres will no longer need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but they will still need a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency. Sheehan said the rollback removes one layer of oversight. Any project that involves the disturbance of one or more acres of wetland in the park will still need an APA permit, too, Sheehan added.
“Outside the park, we’re concerned that the quality of wetlands may diminish, and that, too, may have an impact inside the park,” Sheehan said.
Considering migratory birds, amphibians and other wildlife do not stay within the park boundaries, the Adirondacks could eventually see some changes from the repeal.