The Trump administration on Thursday announced a repeal of a major Obama-era clean water regulation that limited the amount of pollution and chemicals in the nation's rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.
The rollback of the Waters of the United States rule was announced by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler at an event in Washington at the headquarters of the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that has pushed for its repeal and replacement.
The EPA proposed replacing the 2015 water rule in December after an executive order from President Donald Trump, who has criticized the regulations for curbing the rights of farmers, real estate developers and landowners.
The new rule limits the number of waterways the federal government can protect from pollution, including ditches, storm water control facilities and groundwater systems. It would also limit the government's oversight to larger bodies of water. The repeal could take effect in just a few weeks.
The clean water rollback is the latest in a string of moves by the administration to dismantle major environmental protections against pollutants, from curtailing regulations on methane emissions and energy-efficient light bulbs, to pushing for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmental groups condemned the move to weaken water regulations, claiming that loosening restrictions will substantially harm the country's sources of safe drinking water and habitats for wildlife.
The Obama rule was developed to limit pollution in roughly 60% of the country's bodies of water. It gave the federal government the authority to oversee a wide range of lakes, streams and wetlands that connect to large waterways protected under the 1972 Clean Water Act.
"The clean water rule represented solid science and smart public policy. Where it has been enforced, it has protected important waterways and wetlands, providing certainty to all stakeholders," said Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The Trump administration's wild-eyed attempts to reward polluters, however, knows no bounds, so it is repealing these important protections without regard for the law or sound science."
In contrast, farming groups that represent a vital voting constituency for Trump support the repeal of the regulation they say had restricted them from using their property as they see fit. Other groups that support the repeal include oil and gas producers and golf course owners.
"Today's final rule puts an end to an egregious power grab, eliminates an ongoing patchwork of clean water regulations and restores a longstanding and familiar regulatory framework while we consider public comments on our proposed revised definition of waters of the U.S.," Wheeler said Thursday.
Under the Obama rule, some farmers using land near water bodies were restricted from several types of land use, including plowing and planting, and would need permits from the EPA to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides that could run off into water on their property.
"The millions of children newly back to school could give this administration's officials a basic science lesson: wetlands and streams connect to larger rivers. They are vitally important to protecting water quality for all of our communities," said Bob Irvin, president of advocacy group American Rivers.
"The destruction we cause upstream impacts our neighbors downstream."