Audubon Advisory

Rolling Back Protections for Streams and Wetlands

On June 27, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a repeal of the 2015 Clean Water Rule (also known as Waters of the United States). This rule addressed longstanding confusion over which water bodies are protected under the Clean Water Act. The wetlands and streams at the center of the Clean Water Rule serve critical functions. Wetlands cover roughly 110 million acres in the continental U.S. and are indispensable habitat for hundreds of species of birds, including Northern Pintail, American Bittern, Semipalmated Plover, Prothonotary Warbler, and many more birds, fish, and wildlife. These waters also filter pollution and provide drinking water for more than 117 million Americans.

This proposal stems from a February executive order, which started a process to repeal the Clean Water Rule and replace it with a set of rules that would substantially weaken regulations adopted under the Reagan administration. Specifically, the order directed the agencies to “consider interpreting” the Clean Water Act as the late Justice Scalia did in a 2006 opinion: disabling federal pollution safeguards for streams unless they are “relatively permanent,” and excluding wetlands that do not have a “continuous surface connection” to other covered waters. The implications could mean the loss of pollution protections for the nearly 60 percent of streams in the lower 48 states that don’t flow year-round—almost 2 million miles of streams—and the end of Clean Water Act protection for countless wetlands because they do not have a surface connection to “relatively permanent” waters.

This is the first step in the EPA’s effort to roll back safeguards. The next step will be to replace the rule. We will keep you informed on how this process unfolds. Right now, you can take action to protect these streams and wetlands by sending public comments to the EPA.

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