Insights Into New U.S. EPA Rules for Clean Water Act

Pacific Institute’s Analysis and Comments on the New Rules  

May 27, 2015, Oakland, Calif.: On Wednesday, the United States Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) issued – after many years of debate, analysis, court rulings, and new science – final rules on what constitutes “waters of the United States” that require protection under the national Clean Water Act. The new rules will “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, and the territorial seas,” according to the EPA’s announcement. The Clean Water Act is the foundational national law protecting water quality. 

The new rules are long overdue – reflecting the complicated nature of watersheds, hydrology, and the politics of water. Earlier versions of these rules were long opposed and delayed by political interests seeking to limit the authority of the EPA over industrial and agricultural activities that had downstream impacts on water quality. The rules define three groups of waters: those waters covered by the Clean Water Act, those that are excluded, and a middle category of waters that will still be evaluated over time on a case-by-case basis. And these rules are definitional only: the next step is for the EPA to develop and implement regulations on specific efforts to cut water pollution. These new rules are a crucial step to clean up the waters of the U.S. They are a compromise among competing interests, but they should bring clarity to the approach the EPA must take to reign in remaining uncontrolled pollution. The rules will be especially relevant for what is called “non-point source” pollution – those diffuse flows of pollution from agricultural lands, some kinds of urban and suburban storm flows, and other practices that continue to lead to contamination of streams, rivers, lakes, and ultimately the oceans around the U.S.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, commented “these rules will help cut pollution still flowing off agricultural and urban landscapes. They will, for example, reduce the risk of toxic algal blooms that recently shut down Toledo’s water supply, or clean up the massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. And they offer the best chance to finally tackle the massive flow of pollutants off millions of acres of agricultural lands. ”

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The Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Through interdisciplinary research and partnering with stakeholders, the Institute produces solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity – in California, nationally, and internationally. www.pacinst.org