By ELLEN KNICKMEYER
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is moving to withdraw federal protections for countless waterways and wetlands across the country, making good on President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to weaken landmark water rules long resented by some developers, farmers and oil, gas and mining executives.
Environmental groups said the Trump administration’s proposal would have sweeping effects on how the country safeguards the nation’s waterways, scaling back not just the Obama administration’s interpretation in 2015 of federal jurisdiction over the nation’s waters, but also how federal agencies enforce the 1972 Clean Water Act.
“The Trump administration has just given a big Christmas gift to polluters,” said Bob Irvin, president of the American Rivers environmental nonprofit.
“Americans all over the country are concerned about the safety of their drinking water — this is not the time to be rolling back protections.”
The changes would affect what waterways and wetlands fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A set of White House talking points obtained by The Associated Press last week said the Trump administration would remove federal protections for wetlands except for wetlands that are connected to another federally protected waterway, and for streams, creeks, washes and ditches that have water in them only when it rains or snow is melting.
Stephen Sandherr, chief executive of the Associated General Contractors of America, released a statement on Tuesday saying the proposed change would make it easier for contractors to know when projects will come under federal regulations. More importantly, he said, it would role back an Obama-administration rule that threatened to make construction work needlessly confusing, complicated and expensive.
“That rule introduced confusing jurisdictional ‘tests’ that would have imposed new costs and delays on virtually every type of construction project anywhere in the country—even on sites without visible water nearby,” Sandherr said in the statement. “The rule would have required costly consultants to determine whether a job site was covered by the rule and also needed a federal water permit, and then figure out what impact that would have on their other environmental requirements. As a result, the cost of infrastructure and economic development activities would have grown while the time required to complete each project would expand.”
Jan Goldman-Carter of the National Wildlife Federation said the change could remove federal protections for millions of miles of wetlands and waterways, leaving them more vulnerable to destruction by developers and farmers and more exposed to oil spills, fertilizer and other pollutants.
Environmental groups say the kind of isolated wetlands, runoff-fed streams and often-dry washes that would lose federal protections also act a buffer against droughts, floods and hurricanes, which are becoming more common in some places as the climate changes.
Trump promised during his presidential campaign in 2016 to remake the water rules and formally ordered the overhaul in his first months as president. He called the water protections among the “worst” federal regulations.
Supporters of the Trump administration say the rollback will have no effect on drinking water. They argue that current regulations requiring permits for work affecting federally protected waterways are puzzling to land owners.
Any new proposed rules will be up for public comment. Environmental groups promise they will file legal challenges.