WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to extend Clean Water Act protection to smaller bodies of water across the country, including waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, in an effort to clarify which bodies of water are protected by the act.
Maryland environmentalists say the rule would close loopholes that have allowed for pollution and contamination of state water, including the drinking water of nearly 4 million residents.
“The fact that they are finally closing these loopholes… is going to be really significant for Maryland waterways,” said Joanna Diamond, director of Environment Maryland.
Approximately 17,000 miles of water in Maryland is unprotected, she said. More than half of Maryland’s streams are at risk for pollution, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Hydrography Dataset.
One in three Americans gets drinking water from systems that partially draw from the types of streams that would be protected under the rule, the EPA said in a statement.
The agency says the rule will clear up longtime confusion over Clean Water Act protection, which arose after two Supreme Court decisions in the 2000s provided a muddled opinion on whether tributaries and streams fell under the act’s jurisdiction.
“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.
Many conservatives view it as an overreach of EPA authority. Like the conservative plurality in the 2006 court decision, they more narrowly interpret the definition of the phrase “the waters of the United States,” which is how the act defines the areas it covers.
Trade organizations like the National Association of Home Builders and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association released statements opposing the rule, as did Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
McCarthy said in comments and in a video released by the agency that the rule will not expand the coverage of the Clean Water Act or protect new types of waters.
More than 70 Maryland businesses have signed on with Environment Maryland in support of the rule.
The environmental organization has been working on the issue for at least a decade, and there will be “dire consequences” if the rule is not passed, Diamond said.
“We want to make sure that the EPA both feels supported in the rule itself and also just sort of know(s) that Marylanders are on their side for proposing a strong rule,” she said.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee praised the decision.
“The importance of the disputed streams and wetlands is on display every day in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The shoreline of the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries stretch for over 2,000 miles and more than 100,000 streams and rivers and thousands of acres of wetlands provide the freshwater that flows into the Bay,” he said in a statement.
Other national and state environmental groups praised the rule.
“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation welcomes the proposed new rule, which we expect to play an important role in protecting local waterways. The health of seasonal and rain-dependent streams and wetlands near streams and rivers is crucial to the health of downstream waterways,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President Kim Coble in a statement.
The draft rule will be open for a 90-day public comment period once it is published in the Federal Register.