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Saturday, October 22, 2016

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration proposed a long-awaited rule on Tuesday to clarify that the Clean Water Act protects wetlands near rivers, and waterways fed by seasonal thaws and rains — a decision that could particularly shield water sources in the West.

Proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, the draft Waters of the U.S. rule is aimed at defining the scope of the Clean Water Act after two Supreme Court decisions in the last 15 years led to confusion about which waterways were under federal protection, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

At issue is the status of waterways that do not flow year-round or are not permanent lakes, but streams that flow intermittently or after heavy rains, and riparian wetlands. Many small, intermittent waterways feed into drinking-water sources, especially in the West. Without protections, theses tributaries and wetlands could be polluted or filled in, as has happened since the Supreme Court decisions, environmentalists said.

“The health of our rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the smaller interconnected streams and wetlands that feed them,” McCarthy said. “These places are where we get our drinking water. Our farmers rely on these vital waters to grow the fuel, food and fiber that feed our nation. Our businesses rely on abundant, usable water to manufacture.”

Under the draft rule, most intermittent and rain-dependent streams, as well as wetlands near rivers and streams, would be protected by the Clean Water Act. Building, dumping or discharging in those waterways would require a permit from the EPA or the Corps of Engineers.

For bodies of water farther away from perennial waterways, the need for permits would be examined on a case-by-case basis. A third category, including man-made ponds and many kinds of ditches, would be exempt from regulation.

The effort to draft a rule to clearly define the scope of the Clean Water Act has been vigorously opposed by agricultural interests and industry, especially construction companies. They argue that the Obama administration’s definitions would expand the reach of the law and create onerous conditions for business. The National Association of Home Builders contends that the new rule would drive up the price of newly constructed houses.