The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adopted the Clean Water Rule in May 2015 to clear up longstanding confusion over which water bodies the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act protects. The rule more clearly defines what kinds of waters get guaranteed coverage and which ones are exempt.
It is based on extensive research, more than 1200 publications of peer-reviewed science, and was reviewed by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. The Rule also took into account more than one million public comments received on the proposed rule. The EPA and the Army Corps held over 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country to get feedback on the proposed rule and then numerous other meetings with stakeholders after the final rule was released to ensure those impacted would understand what the final rule did and didn’t do.
The water bodies at the center of the Clean Water Rule serve critical functions. Notably, more than 117 million Americans (1 in 3 Americans) receive drinking water from public systems that draw supply from headwater, seasonal, or rain-dependent streams. Wetlands cover roughly 110 million acres in the continental U.S., which filter pollution from contaminated runoff and replenish groundwater. An acre of wetlands can also store upwards of a million gallons of flood water, and wetlands provide essential fish and wildlife habitat, supporting a robust outdoor recreation economy.
The Rule expands protections for small streams and wetlands because science tells us that small streams and wetlands are connected to and have a strong influence on the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of downstream waterways such as rivers.
What makes the Clean Water Rule so important to preserve is:
- It acknowledges the importance of small waterways on downstream pollution, extending protection to smaller waterways and water bodies. What matters under this rule is how connected a water body is — not its size or whether it flows year-round.
- It protects wetlands and streams which weren't clearly covered under the Clean Water Act because they aren't necessarily "navigable." Nevertheless these waters, 22 million acres of wetlands in the contiguous U.S., as well as upwards of 2 million miles of streams and some small, isolated bodies of water, such as the shallow wetlands of the Prairie Pothole Region of the Great Plains, are now protected.
- It lets irrigation ditches and farm ponds be. The expanded protections do not regulate groundwater, nor does it increase federal oversight of irrigation or drainage ditches — and many other small water bodies — like farm and stock ponds — which are exempted from the Clean Water Act.