The Obama administration issued new rules Wednesday to protect the nation's drinking water and clarify which smaller streams, tributaries and wetlands are covered by anti-pollution and development provisions of the Clean Water Act.
Two Supreme Court rulings had left the reach of the law uncertain. The rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are designed to clarify which smaller bodies of water fall under federal protection.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule will only affect waters that have a "direct and significant" connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected. The EPA has said 60 percent of the nation's streams and waterways are vulnerable, and these rules clarify which of those waters are protected. The regulations would only kick in if a business or landowner intends to pollute or destroy those waters.
The rules have already run into deep opposition from farm groups and the Republican-led Congress. The House voted to block the regulations earlier this month, and a similar effort is underway in the Senate.
Echoing the concerns of farm groups, the lawmakers said the rules could greatly expand the reach of the clean water law and create confusion among officials in the field as to which bodies of water must be protected. Farmers wary of more federal regulations are concerned that every stream, ditch and puddle on their private land could now be subject to federal oversight.
McCarthy has acknowledged the proposed rules issued last year were confusing and said the final rules were written to be more clear. She said the regulations don't create any new permitting requirements for agriculture and even adds some new exemptions for artificial lakes and ponds and water-filled depressions, among other features.
These efforts were "to make clear our goal is to stay out of agriculture's way," McCarthy said in a blog posted on the EPA website.
McCarthy said the rule will help protect drinking water for 117 million Americans.