WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama’s administration wrote new rules aimed at better protecting the nation’s waterways and wetlands, it sent ripples of anxiety through farm country.
Lance Atwater, who grows corn and soybeans on his south-central Nebraska farm, worried about a section of his land that is usually dry but can turn into a small pond in a “bomb cyclone” year like 2019.
“That would have been the question last year — does that give the federal government, then, the authority to come in and tell me that now I got to go through this process to be up to regulation standards?” Atwater said.
He and other producers are feeling better, though, after hearing Thursday that President Donald Trump’s administration finalized its rollback of those 2015 rules, which are commonly referred to as Waters of the U.S.
The action makes good on Trump’s campaign trail promise to tackle regulations that prompted strong opposition not just from farmers but developers and the oil, gas and mining sectors.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, say the action goes beyond merely rolling back the Obama-era rule and would more broadly impact how federal agencies treat the 1972 Clean Water Act.
Chiefs of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed the new rule before appearing at a builders’ convention in Las Vegas.
Iowa and Nebraska officials who have worked to strike down WOTUS issued statements hailing Thursday’s news.
“This new rule builds on the great work the Trump Administration has been doing to cut red tape,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a statement. “The rule respects states’ rights, and protects our farmers and ranchers from federal government overreach.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said the new rule “helps to put Nebraskans back in charge of our state’s own precious water resources,” and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said “bureaucrats have no place regulating puddles in Nebraska, and the Obama administration was wrong for trying this nonsense.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she’s heard from constituents for years “what an egregious overreach Obama’s WOTUS rule was” and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said “giving the federal government the power to regulate nearly all of Iowa would have been an economic catastrophe.”
The changes had been opposed by environmental advocates and public health officials. They say the changes would make it harder to maintain a clean water supply for the American public and would threaten habitat and wildlife.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler specified that the changes lift federal protections for so-called ephemeral waters — creeks and rivers which run only after rainfall or snowmelt.
The rollback is one of the most ambitious of the Trump administration’s wide-ranging cuts in federal protections on the environment and public health. While many rollback efforts have targeted regulations adopted under the Obama administration, the draft clean-water plan released earlier would lift federal protections for many waterways and wetlands that have stood for decades under the Clean Water Act.
That includes protections for creek and riverbeds that run only in wet seasons or after rain or snowmelt.
“That’s a huge rollback from way before Obama, before Reagan,” said Blan Holman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Atwater said he’s not worried the Trump administration’s changes will lead to befouled streams in Nebraska.
“I don’t know of any farmer or rancher that is wanting to pollute our water,” he said.
He said he never had a federal agent knock on his door to police puddles on his farm, but he’s comforted to have certainty that that won’t happen now.
“It does provide that peace of mind that the ditches and the draws, the areas that we do have water flow through on occasions, I don’t have to worry about what regulations might be put on our operation,” Atwater said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.