Chesapeake Bay advocates raise concern about Trump proposal pulling back federal regulation of streams and wetlands

The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed a rule that would remove small streams, isolated wetlands and other waterways from the Environmental Protection Agency's authority, a move proponents said simplifies a complex Obama-era rule but that environmental advocates said could threaten Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

The policy proposed under President Barack Obama in 2015 has never been implemented because of legal challenges across the country that accused the administration of federal overreach.

It would have dramatically increased regulation of bodies of water to include those that may only exist for part of the year or are far from tidal systems — waterways that environmentalists say can nonetheless feed pollution into larger ecosystems, such as the Chesapeake.

The rule change is not expected to mean much for waters, farms and development projects within Maryland, because state laws and regulations already trigger extensive reviews to prevent pollution from nutrients and sediment from increasing in the bay.

But it could have a larger impact farther upstream in the Chesapeake watershed, in places such as Delaware and Pennsylvania, where state rules are less stringent and federal regulation is therefore more important.

“Maryland will have no ability to weigh in or minimize or avoid pollution discharges that are going to be coming in from places like Delaware,” said Elaine Lutz, a lawyer for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It could hamper our cleanup efforts all around the watershed.”

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said President Donald Trump’s administration is handing more control over water quality to states and reducing red tape for farmers and business owners. Opponents of the Obama administration’s rule said it was open-ended and therefore confusing.

“For the first time, we are clearly defining the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals.”

Environmental groups across the country criticized the proposal, which is subject to public comment for 60 days.

“This is an early Christmas gift to polluters and a lump of coal for everyone else,” said Bob Irvin, CEO of American Rivers.

The Environmental Working Group said the Trump rule could affect drinking water sources for 117 million Americans. While the water sources themselves may be subject to clean water regulations, environmentalists said, streams, ponds and wetlands connected to larger waterways can pass along pollution. Marshes, in particular, serve as filters for pollution.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said he plans to “vigorously” oppose the new rule, calling it “unlawful” and “dangerous.”

“EPA’s latest proposal abdicates much of the federal government’s role in protecting and improving the health of our nation's lakes, rivers, and other waterways,” he said in a statement. “The proposal would give polluters more room to degrade our nation’s waters, erasing decades of progress.”

Business and industrial groups said the Obama rule added confusing layers of bureaucracy. The Waters Advocacy Coalition, whose members include the mining industry, said the Trump rule “empowers communities to protect their own water resources while providing regulatory clarity for our nation’s farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and landowners.”

Maryland Farm Bureau officials said they did not expect the new rule would change much for the state’s agriculture industry. Farmers already must work with state and local officials before making major changes on their fields that could impact water quality. They are restricted in how much fertilizer they can spread on fields that are already saturated with nutrients.

But bureau President Chuck Fry nonetheless welcomed the revision.

“The new rule puts regulation of most water back in the hands of states, where it belongs,” said Chuck Fry. “Nobody knows our farms better than the men and women who have been farming it for generations.”

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