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EPA Announces New Rules To Protect U.S. Waters


You could say the Obama administration is swimming upstream in its effort to regulate the nation's waterways, but it's facing strong opposition. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a new rule today at protecting smaller streams and wetlands from pollution. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced the Clean Water Rule this afternoon on the banks of the Anacostia River here in Washington. Later, she told reporters on a conference call the rule is premised on the simple fact that water and pollution flow downhill. So any effort to clean up iconic waterways, like the Chesapeake Bay, need to start upstream at the source.


GINA MCCARTHY: The lakes and rivers we love to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them also need to be clean, too.

HORSLEY: Supporters insist the new rule does not expand the government's authority, but rather restores the authority the EPA already had under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Madeleine Foote, of the League of Conservation Voters, says the authority to police smaller streams and wetlands was called into question by a pair of Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006.

MADELEINE FOOTE: Two Supreme Court decisions really muddied the waters on which waters were covered under the Clean Water Act. And so we've been in this state of limbo for about a decade, where the small streams and wetlands have not necessarily been protected from pollution.

HORSLEY: The EPA says by once again exercising its authority over smaller waterways, the new rule will help to protect the drinking water supplies used by one in three Americans. A survey conducted by the League of Conservation Voters finds four out of five Americans support the Clean Water Rule. But the measure appears to be a lot less popular with some in industry and especially the nation's farmers and ranchers.

DAVID LUKER: I don't think they're as concerned about clean water as they are about controlling me and my actions on my own property.

HORSLEY: David Luker raises cattle on about 430 acres in central Missouri. A half-mile-long creek crosses his property and empties into the Missouri River, but Luker says much of the time, that creek is dry.

LUKER: I would say nine to 10 months out of the year, you couldn't float a boat made out of a gum wrapper down the stream that we have in this creek.

HORSLEY: Still, Luker's worried he'll need a costly permit to control erosion in the creek bed. He's already alarmed by the level of government oversight of his property. He found the Army Corps of Engineers has satellite images of his farm dating back two decades.

LUKER: Anyone that owns any land in this country that has any type of little creek or puddle or anything in it - in order for you to do anything on your property, you're going to have to go to someone and ask permission. And then they're going to tell you how you have to do it, and they don't care what it costs.

HORSLEY: The EPA insists its new rule still makes plenty of allowances for farmers, but congressional Republicans want more. Republicans in the House have already passed a bill that would roll back the EPA rule, and the Senate is considering a similar measure. The White House is defending the EPA and threatens to veto any effort to torpedo its rule. President Obama calls the measure another step towards protecting the waters that belong to all of us. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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