SALT LAKE CITY — The Trump administration's proposed rollback of an Obama-era rule defining what waterways fall under federal jurisdiction was hailed by ranchers and private property advocates and blasted by environmental groups.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers released proposed revisions to the 2015 rule that was challenged by 21 states, including Utah.
American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said Obama's rule required "drastic" action by farmers and ranchers across the country, spawning a nationwide campaign called "Ditch the Rule."
At the press event announcing the proposed revisions, Duvall said all presidents of the federation's 50 chapters were in the room as a show of support.
"I think the government is being given back to the people through this administration," Duvall said.
Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson, who attended the EPA announcement on the proposed changes, said the revisions will provide much-needed clarity.
"I think the point of this is that nobody is saying anybody cares less about water or the environment, but we finally have clear definitions of what navigable waters are. That is what we have been after for years."
The Obama-era rule was hotly contested in the courts before it was even put into real action.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes signed Utah on as the first state to join a challenge to the rule.
At the time, he called it an example of "blatant disregard for rural communities and businesses in Utah and other Western states."
Environmental groups countered that the rule was necessary to protect water from contamination in ephemeral waterways and wetlands.
Their reaction today was swift and harsh.
“EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are attempting to reduce or eliminate Clean Water Act protections for the majority of our nation’s waters in violation of our most basic procedural and environmental laws," said Waterkeeper Alliance senior attorney Kelly Hunter Foster. "The agencies should be working to protect the public and restore our nation’s waters — not engaging in this elaborate multiyear plot to legalize more water pollution.”
Critics call the changes a "gift" to industry.
But farmers and ranchers and a coalition of states worried the Obama rule, written to clarify an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, would have extended regulatory oversight to ponds and ditches and intermittent streams because they would be considered as extensions of "navigable waterways."
In February, the Trump administration delayed implementation of the rule for up to two years to buy more time for possible revisions.
The Obama-era rule was both hated and loved because of its modification of regulations that had been in place for over 25 years regarding which water falls under Clean Water Act jurisdiction.
Groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said federal protection was necessary over seasonal streams, which involve 60 percent of the stream miles in the United States.
At the time, the EPA argued the rule did not expand the scope of jurisdictional oversight, but clarified protections for upstream waters vital to the health of downstream communities.
The new revisions could be finalized next year and was prompted by Trump's executive order urging the EPA to protect those waters with a "relatively permanent surface connection" to traditionally navigable waters like a major river.
The revision lists six categories of jurisdictional waters that would fall under Clean Water Action protections and its exclusions, such as land where water results from heavy rainfall, groundwater and most ditches.