The Biden administration is set to toss out President Donald Trump's efforts to scale back the number of streams, marshes and other wetlands that fall under federal protection, kicking off a legal and regulatory scuffle over the fate of wetlands and waterways around the country, from the arid West to the swampy South.
Michael Regan, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said his team determined that the Trump administration's rollback is "leading to significant environmental degradation." The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers now will craft a new set of protections for waterways that provide habitats for wildlife and safe drinking water for millions of Americans, according to a joint statement.
With the announcement, the Biden administration is wading into a decadeslong battle over how far federal officials can go to stop contaminants from entering small streams and other wetlands.
"Communities deserve to have our nation's waters protected," said Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
In 2015, the Obama administration expanded federal authority to stop or curtail development that could harm a variety of wetlands, streams and ditches that feed into larger bodies of water protected under the Clean Water Act.
The Trump-era rollback, finalized last year, was long sought by builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others who complained about federal overreach that they said stretched into gullies, creeks and ravines on farmland and other private property.
But critics, including a panel of independent scientists picked by the Trump administration, slammed the move for potentially hastening the destruction of waterways, including "ephemeral" streams that appear only after rainfall and help purify water on its way to larger lakes and rivers that serve as sources of drinking water. The current lack of protections is particularly notable in dry states such as New Mexico and Arizona, the EPA said.
"The science says those streams and these wetlands are an important part of our clean-water system in the United States and should be protected," said Tom Kiernan, head of American Rivers, a conservation group.
The Trump-era rule resulted in a 25% reduction in the number of streams and wetlands that are afforded federal protection, Pinkham said.
Now, Regan says he's trying to strike the delicate balance between conservation and development that both the Trump and Obama administrations failed to reach.
"We've learned lessons from both, we've seen complexities in both, and we've determined both rules did not necessarily listen to the will of the people," Regan told House lawmakers in April.
Since the end of the Revolutionary War, more than half of the 221 million acres of wetlands in what would become the contiguous United States have been drained, often for farming. The rate of destruction began to wane only in recent decades.
In northwest Ohio, for instance, corn and other crops are grown on a vast tract once known as the Great Black Swamp. Farmers began draining it during the 19th century, and now agricultural runoff flows into Lake Erie and feeds the growth of toxic algae that regularly closes beaches and once forced the city of Toledo to suspend tap water use for about two days.
Bill Stanley, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, said the Trump administration's withdrawal of federal protections for what few streams remain to filter nutrient waste from fertilizers could make the lake susceptible to even bigger algae blooms.
"'Nutrients' doesn't sound like a bad word," he said, "but when you get too many of them, it causes major problems for our water quality in Ohio."
But farmers such as Daryl Lies, who raises hogs and sheep and grows vegetables on 160 acres in central North Dakota, say the Obama-era restrictions on wetland development would have been "painstakingly costly for agriculture." Those rules, he said, "would have made it a lot harder to have the livestock" near a creek that winds along his farm on its way to the Missouri River.
"Farmers and ranchers are the original environmentalists, I say," said Lies, who heads the North Dakota Farm Bureau. "We're not the activists, like we hear across the nation, but we are the real environmentalists. We care about taking care of our land and having it there for the next generation."
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Daly of The Associated Press.