The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially moved to scale back stricter water regulations created under the Obama administration Tuesday, but the reaction in Alabama has been mixed among public officials and environmental groups.
First rolled out in 2015, the EPA’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule redefined the scope of which waterways are protected the Clean Water Act. It expanded the definition to include any tributaries showing physical signs of running water, even if they aren’t flowing year round, among other changes.
The increased federal authority was supported by environmentalists who said it was necessary to ensure vital waterways are protected in all U.S. states. However, critics saw the rule as a broad “power grab” impugning states’ rights to regulate their own resources.
Shortly after it was created, Alabama joined 11 states in a lawsuit against the EPA over the WOTUS rule that ultimately led to a nationwide stay of its implementation. The EPA announced intentions to withdraw from the rule altogether in June and Tuesday, officially did so.
Acting EPA Director Andrew Wheeler said the new change provides “states and landowners the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow local economies.” In Alabama, Attorney General State Marshall was quick to praise the move.
“The new EPA Waters of the United States definition clearly delineates whether a waterway is covered by the federal government, thus simplifying the process for landowners in seeking permits for use of their property,” Marshall said in a statement. “This new definition will be especially welcome to our farmers, timberland owners and others who use land for commercial purposes and who were unfairly targeted under the old Obama administration WOTUS rule.”
However, supporters of WOTUS say opponents often mischaracterized what the regulatory shift actually did. On Wednesday, Mobile Baykeeper said the rollback of WOTUS would remove critical safeguards from nearly 60 percent of creeks and 75 percent of wetlands in Alabama.
“These protections are critical for Alabamians to drink clean water, hunt, fish, and swim,” Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said in a statement. “Allowing this rule change would let industrial facilities, sewage plants and developers impact many previously protected creeks and fill wetlands without restrictions, harming our local economy and way of life.”
Baykeeper’s statement claimed the rule change would loosen regulations protecting bodies of water feeding into important drinking water sources like Big Creek Lake, and suggested the impact to agricultural activities had been exaggerated by critics of WOTUS.
“Regular farming activities (plowing, planting and harvesting) are not currently regulated by the Clean Water Act and will continue to occur without being regulated with or without this rule change,” Callaway wrote. “Instead, the proposed rule eliminates regulations important for protecting our wetlands and streams.”
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