SALT LAKE CITY — When new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt visited Utah last summer, he told Gov. Gary Herbert and local ranchers he wanted to retool a federal rule redefining the meaning of "waters" of the United States.
Pruitt revisited that promise Thursday when his office announced a two-year delay to the implementation of the Waters of the United States rule that has been fiercely condemned by ranchers, farmers and energy companies.
In his former role as Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt led one of many states' efforts to legally challenge the rule, which they complained as too broad and too vague.
Pruitt's administration said it will rewrite the rule, which was adopted in 2015 and described as the most signficant overhaul to the Clean Water Act in more than 40 years. The two-year cooling off period will allow the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to once again revisit where they have jurisdictional oversight.
At the time of the rule's adoption, federal regulators said it only clarified protections for seasonal waterways critical to downstream communities.
Critics, however, said that "clarification" extended the agencies' regulatory authority to dry creek beds, drainage ditches and puddles.
In Utah in particular, critics feared intermittent or ephemeral drainages would be looped in under the rule.
Environmental groups and conservation organizations said the rule protected critical wetlands. Seven scientific organizations urged the Trump administration to leave the rule untouched.
But farmers and ranchers were adamant over a repeal or rewrite of the rule.
"We applaud the EPA and Army Corps for hitting the pause button while we search for added clarity and certainty for America's farmers," said Dennis Nuxoll in a statement released by the Western Growers, which represents local and regional farmers in multiple Western states
The Utah Farm Bureau pushed for the rule's demise, and the Utah Legislature in 2016 passed a resolution urging support for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' efforts to have the courts vacate the new regulations.
"No one cares about the environment more than farmers and ranchers. That is how we make our living," said Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson. "The crazy part is when we have federal regulations and federal agencies with no common sense. … Waters of the United States is a perfect example of this. We are extremely happy they are redoing the rule."
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