Last week saw the fruition of rumors surrounding the alteration of an Obama-era rule, Waters of the United States, as the E.P.A. proposed we redefine what could be considered federally regulated water bodies. Originally issued under a 2015 update to the 1972 Clean Water Act, the rule sought to restore much of the broad scope of federal oversight offered in the 1972 law which had been whittled away throughout years of legislative editing. If accepted, the new definition of what constitutes “Waters of the United States” would cut federal oversight even further, dismantling the regulatory authority reinstated by the Obama rule. This week, we’re looking at the original Waters of the United States rule, how the new definition would loosen federal oversight of American water bodies, and how those changes could affect Nebraskan water systems.

What was the old rule?
A New York Times article published May 27, 2015 about Waters of the United States reported that the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers worked together to propose the rule which would effectively protect around 60 percent of America’s water bodies. The rule sought to empower federal government agencies to oversee and limit pollution in a broader slew of smaller water bodies including streams, headwaters and wetlands. Former President Obama stated the reasoning behind the regulation plainly: “One in three Americans now get drinking water from streams lacking clear protection, and businesses and industries that depend on clean water face uncertainty and delay. Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution.”

While it received criticism at the time from conservative lawmakers who saw the rule as federal overreach, environmentalist groups showered it with high praise. “Our rivers, lakes and drinking water can only be clean if the steams that flow into them are protected,” stated Margie Alt in the Times article. Alt is the executive director of Environment America, a group of state-based environmental advocacy organizations who research and advocate for greater environmental protections. While the rule did not restore the full scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act, it was lauded as a strong start in keeping a greater portion of American water bodies clean and properly regulated.

What changes have been proposed?
The E.P.A. did not choose to repeal the Waters of the United States rule. Instead, it proposed the government redefine what is covered under the definition of “Waters of the United States.” An overview of the proposed revision published on the E.P.A.’s website states, “The proposal limits where federal regulations apply and gives states and tribes more flexibility to determine how best to manage waters within their borders.” It goes on to say the E.P.A. took suggestions from “states, tribes, local governments and stakeholders” to come to the proposed definitions.

In layman’s terms, this means the framework for regulating many bodies of water, including groundwater, converted cropland, stormwater control features and certain impoundments and ditches, will no longer receive federal oversight. Instead, they could be controlled by any number of other agencies including state and local governments or even the very corporations which own and pollute water bodies in the first place.

How could this affect NE water systems?
The portion of this ruling most likely to affect Nebraskans and our water systems is the deregulation of groundwater. Groundwater is a major source of drinking water for Nebraskans and deregulating it could lead to greater pollution which could then find its way into our faucets.

Additionally, deregulation of ditches, specifically farm and roadside ditches, could cause more pollution to Nebraska’s rivers, lakes and streams. Polluted field runoff has caused serious problems for water systems around the country in the past due to the high levels of toxic pesticides and herbicides found in it, especially in rural, agrarian communities like many in our state.

Stay up-to-date on all things aquatic by following the Quality Water Services blog. For information on how to provide your family with the cleanest possible drinking water right from your faucet, call our offices to inquire about how a soft water system can help.