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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is expected to put forth a proposal on Tuesday that would significantly weaken a major Obama-era regulation on clean water, according to a talking points memo from the Environmental Protection Agency that was distributed to White House allies this week.
The Obama rule was designed to limit pollution in about 60 percent of the nation’s bodies of water, protecting sources of drinking water for about a third of the United States. It extended existing federal authority to limit pollution in large bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, to smaller bodies that drain into them, such as tributaries, streams and wetlands.
But it became a target for rural landowners, an important part of President Trump’s political base, since it could have restricted how much pollution from chemical fertilizers and pesticides could seep into water on their property.
“The previous administration’s 2015 rule wasn’t about water quality,” the memo says. “It was about power — power in the hands of the federal government over farmers, developers and landowners.”
The memo, which did not include full details of the proposal, described a less stringent, more industry-friendly version of the rule, known as Waters of the United States. The revised rule would exclude from regulation streams and tributaries that do not run year round. It would also exclude wetlands that are not directly connected to larger bodies of water.
Mr. Trump won cheers from rural audiences on the presidential campaign trail when he vowed to roll back the Obama rule. One of his first actions in office was to sign an executive order directing his E.P.A. chief to repeal and replace the rule.
Real estate developers and golf course owners — businesses in which Mr. Trump worked for decades — were also among the chief opponents of the earlier rule, since it could have limited how they used their land. “The opponents of Waters of the United States are going to be pleased with this new rule,” said Myron Ebell, who led Mr. Trump’s E.P.A. transition team and who viewed the memo. “It looks like it’s going to significantly reduce the federal jurisdictional footprint on these waters, to significantly below what it was before the rule.”
Environmentalists have denounced the proposed change as a threat to public health that will lead to more pollution in American waters, even as Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed his commitment to “crystal-clean water.”
The new rule would “gut water protections nationwide,” the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. It would “limit the scope of the Clean Water Act, exempting many oil companies, industrial facilities and developers from programs that aim to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands from degradation,” the group said.
The Obama-era rule was developed jointly by the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers under the authority of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gave the federal government broad power to limit pollution in major bodies of water, as well as smaller bodies that flowed into them. But two Supreme Court decisions, in 2001 and 2006, created legal confusion about whether the federal government had the authority to regulate the smaller streams and headwaters, and other water sources such as wetlands.
The Obama rule sought to clarify that authority, allowing the government to once again limit pollution in those smaller bodies of water. It would also have allowed regulation, in some cases, of pollution into so-called ephemeral streams that do not run year round, and into wetlands that do not directly flow into larger bodies of water.
Opponents of the Obama rule sued to block that plan. Federal courts have halted its implementation in 28 states, though in recent months it has taken effect in the other 22.
The Trump administration’s water proposal will be opened for a public comment period, and it could still be revised or changed before it is finalized, most likely at some point in 2019.
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Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on climate change, from the Washington bureau. She joined The Times in 2013 and previously worked at Congressional Quarterly, Politico and National Journal. @CoralMDavenport • Facebook
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