Food & Beverage

Trump executive order seeks to roll back controversial Obama water rules

President Donald Trump speaks before signing the the Waters of the US (WOTUS) executive order, aimed at killing the Obama administration's Clean Water Act rule, at the White House in Washington, DC, February 28, 2017.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order seeking to roll back a controversial water rule opposed by farmer, rancher and homebuilder groups.

The Waters of the United States rule, known as WOTUS, was drafted during the Obama administration and broadened the definition of such things as "tributary" and also toughened controls over "adjacent waters."

Agriculture groups have been critical of the rule, claiming farmers could lose ranch or farmland because of the regulations. Homebuilder groups also lashed out at the Obama water rule and said it was costly to their business.

In remarks before signing the order, Trump called WOTUS "one of the worst examples of federal regulation — and it has truly run amok. It is one of the rules most strongly opposed by farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers all across our land. It's been a disaster."

The water rules were published in 2015 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

According to Trump, the Obama EPA action on WOTUS "was a massive power grab. The EPA's regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Regulations and permits started treating our wonderful small farmers and small businesses as if they were a major industrial polluter."

Several states and industry groups challenged WOTUS and a federal court eventually issued a stay to halt its implementation.

The new chief of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, sued the federal agency over WOTUS when he served as Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt was present Tuesday when Trump signed the executive order to begin the process of rescinding or revising WOTUS.

"This extremely flawed rule would force ranchers and feedlot operators to get permits or risk excessive federal penalties despite being miles away from any navigable water," the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said in a statement Tuesday.

The cattlemen's group added, "It would be one of the largest federal land grabs and private-property infringements in American history, and the president should be applauded for making EPA and the Corps reconsider this debacle. Ultimately, this rule should be taken out behind the barn and put out of its misery."

Similarly, the American Farm Bureau Federation's president, Zippy Duvall, praised the Trump action on WOTUS, calling it "welcome relief to farmers and ranchers across the country today."

The Clean Water Act passed in the 1970s allows the EPA to regulate "navigable waters," which Trump contends was merely meant to apply to things impacting interstate commerce. But he said the agency redefined what that term meant and the rule expanded to include "nearly every puddle or every ditch on farmer's land or any place else that they decide."

Last year, the National Association of Home Builders filed a federal court brief challenging WOTUS, calling the rule a "deeply flawed, arbitrarily written" regulation. It claimed that federal permits create burdensome delays and also raise costs and hurt housing affordability.

In a statement Tuesday, NAHB said Trump's executive order "is an important first step toward reworking the flawed regulation and moving toward a more sensible WOTUS rule."

Added the homebuilder group, "The executive order provides direction to EPA and the Corps to reconsider the rule that dramatically extended the areas in which home builders are required to get permits, blatantly usurping state and local regulatory authority."

Environmental groups have previously vowed to challenge any rollback in federal water rules.

The Sierra Club was critical of Trump's action, issuing a press release saying the president's executive order seeks to "ultimately undo the Clean Water Rule," which it said took years to craft. It also claims Trump's "order to undo the scientifically based Clean Water Rule and create a lengthy process will continue the confusion in what waters are protected by the Clean Water Act."