Source: Reuters

By Valerie Volcovici

The Obama administration on Wednesday issued a new rule to protect streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, a step it said would help keep drinking water safe, but farmers and industry groups argued the regulation will be costly.

The Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, aims to give clarity about which bodies of water the EPA would have jurisdiction over.

"This rule responds to the public's demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, Civil Works.

The EPA and Army Corps said they took Wednesday's action after receiving requests for over a decade from members of Congress, state and local officials, environmental and agriculture groups and scientists. They sought clarity around what is protected under the Clean Water Act, first passed in 1972.

"One in three Americans now gets drinking water from streams lacking clear protection, and businesses and industries that depend on clean water face uncertainty and delay, which costs our economy every day," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Among key elements of the rule are that it "defines and protects tributaries" that have an impact on downstream waters, and focuses on streams that can carry pollution downstream, rather than ditches.

Environmental groups praised the measures.

"Today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade," said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America.

But farmers fear they could be at risk of steep fines if traces of fertilizer or manure are discharged without a permit into what, under the rule, are bodies of water under the EPA's regulatory powers. Farmers groups expressed concern their members' fertilizers could fall into common wet areas like ditches or drainage areas which they worry the EPA will define as waterways.

The EPA downplayed those concerns.

"We do not expect there to be any change to farming activities based on this rule," Ken Kopocis, head of EPA’s Office of Water, told agriculture reporters on a conference call on Wednesday.

Lawmakers from farm states blasted the rule, and called on the administration to withdraw or redo it.

"This rule is reckless and unwarranted, and I will work tirelessly to stop this expansion of federal control,” said Republican Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

Fischer and a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill last month that would direct the agencies to issue a revised proposal that would set limits on federal regulation of water, require more consultation and an economic analysis.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farm lobby group in the U.S., said it was still analyzing the rule and aims to issue a thorough evaluation within a week, a spokesman told Reuters. After that it will determine its course of action.

"While we know that farmers and ranchers were dedicated to calling for substantial changes to the rule, we have serious concerns about whether their comments were given full consideration," said Bob Stallman, president of the AFBF.

The EPA and Army Corps said they held more than 400 meetings with "stakeholders" across the country and reviewed over one million public comments.