Thousands of miles of headwater streams and wetlands acreage in Pennsylvania and many more across the nation would have pollution and encroachment protections restored under a new Clean Water Act rule the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed Tuesday.
The rule would cover most wetlands, smaller headwater streams, and intermittent and ephemeral streams that flow only briefly following rainfalls, imposing stricter federal pollution controls.
Outlined in a 371-page document, the proposed rule aims to clear up a dozen years of regulatory confusion created by two complex U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 and directives issued by the George W. Bush administration that limited Clean Water Act jurisdiction and enforcement.
“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in announcing the rule.
The rule, citing scientific support, would protect most seasonal and rain-dependent streams, and wetlands that are near or are connected to streams and rivers. Such streams are important for filtering pollution, recharging groundwater and surface waters and providing breeding habitat for fish and wildlife.
Other types of waters with more uncertain downstream connections, like “prairie potholes” in the Midwest and farm ponds, will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The proposed rule, however, does not expand Clean Water Act protections to any waters not historically covered by the act, Ms. McCarthy said.
The EPA has requested public guidance on how to conduct such reviews, during a 90-day public comment period on the entire rule that will begin in a couple of weeks, following the rule’s publication in the Federal Register.
Seeking to head off criticism from business and farm groups, Ms. McCarthy said in a telephone news conference the proposal doesn’t regulate agricultural tile drainage systems and water ditches, and continues and expands exemptions for 53 farm conservation practices that will not need permits or pre-approval by regulators.
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau did not respond to a request for comment but has stated its opposition to expanding Clean Water Act protections in the past.
Samantha Krepps, a state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said the proposed rule has “potential implications for agriculture” in Pennsylvania and will be closely reviewed.
“We anticipate making comments during the 90-day comment period,” she said.
Despite the assurances offered by EPA, the National Association of Home Builders issued a statement saying the rule greatly expands the agency’s regulatory reach and would “increase the cost of new homes without a corresponding benefit to America’s lakes, rivers and other water bodies.”
But environmental groups in Pennsylvania and across the nation quickly hailed the proposed rule as a major, long-overdue step back to the protections intended when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.
“I think this is the biggest step forward to clean up Pennsylvania waterways in over a decade,” said Adam Garber, field director with PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. He said the federal rule would restore protection for 49,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s smallest streams, or 59 percent of the total stream miles in the state, plus hundreds of acres of wetlands.
“Those streams are in people’s communities and backyards,” he said. “People use them and care deeply about them. If we don’t protect the headwaters, it won’t matter what we do with the big rivers. It’s important to protect the whole water system, so this is a big step.”
Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization, said the proposed federal rule closes gaps in protection that affect approximately 20 million acres of wetlands in the U.S. and half of the nation’s small streams.
Larry Schweiger, National Wildlife Federation president and chief executive officer, said the rule protects streams and wetlands that supply drinking water to more than a third of all Americans.
Maggie Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Earthjustice, said that more than 8.2 million people in Pennsylvania are served by public drinking water systems that draw from surface water — and for 98 percent of those, the surface waters are dependent on the supply from intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams whose status under the CWA was previously at risk.
“All of that source water is protected by the CWA under this rule,” she said.
Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the department hasn’t had a chance to review the rule or determine how many stream miles or wetland acreage would be impacted by its final adoption.
Todd Ambs, campaign director for Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said the rule would help restore the Great Lakes’ streams and watersheds, “and ultimately the health of the lakes themselves.”
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.