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Oregon lawmakers divided over EPA rollback of water protections

Reps. Greg Walden and Pete DeFazio took opposing stances on the Trump administration's announcement that it would change clean water standards.

Posted: Jan 23, 2020 3:12 PM
Updated: Jan 24, 2020 11:48 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two U.S. Congressmen representing parts of southern Oregon were quick to sound off Thursday following an announcement from the Trump administration that it would move ahead with rollbacks on Obama-era clean water protections.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the change on Thursday. During the Obama administration, the agency expanded protections of the "waters of the United States" (commonly referred to as WOTUS) to include smaller waterways within the purview of the Clean Water Act — broadening regulations to cover streams, wetlands, small lakes and rivers across the U.S.

The Trump administration said that this interpretation bred "confusion." According to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), it enabled the EPA to potentially regulate waterways as trivial as drain ditches — causing uncertainty for ranchers and farmers.

“For years, farmers and ranchers across Oregon have expressed their concerns to me about the heavy-handed Obama-era definition of WOTUS,” said Walden. “They stressed that their intermittent stream or irrigation ditch would be subject to the burden of overreaching federal regulation."

Walden's office said that he was an early critic of the 2015 Obama-era ruling.

In a statement on Thursday, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) strongly disagreed, claiming that the rule change would gut the Clean Water Act and end protections for waterways that millions of people rely on for clean drinking water.

“This is an extraordinarily dark day for the waters of the United States of America, for our environment, for those 117 million Americans who depend upon it for their drinking water, an infinite amount of wildlife impacted, from migratory species to fisheries and others,” said DeFazio. “I am going to do everything I can, within the jurisdiction of my committee and the Clean Water Act, to stop this heinous action.”

The EPA says that the new interpretation, called the "Navigable Waters Protection Rule," delivers on President Trump's promise to protect the nation's navigable waters from pollution while promoting economic growth across the country with a clear, "common-sense" approach.

"The EPA’s new definition of WOTUS will both protect our environment and our rural communities," Walden said. "Today’s announcement is welcome news for rural Oregon. I applaud President Trump and his administration for listening to the concerns of America’s farmers and ranchers and delivering on the promise to revise WOTUS."

According to the EPA, the new rule only enforces environmental regulations on four main categories of water: territorial seas and navigable waters, tributaries, certain lakes or ponds, and wetlands near other jurisdictional waters. It rules out regulations on any water formed by rainfall or groundwater, as well as ditches, prior croplands, watering ponds, and waste treatment systems.

“This is a tragedy and it’s going to leave tens of millions of Americans unable to trust their taps,” said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “This rule would provide the lowest level of clean water protection since the Clean Water Act was passed in the 70s. It's absolutely staggering to think that at this time, when we still have millions of Americans that are suffering from dirty water that they can't drink, that is unsafe, that we would repeal this level of basic protection for all Americans.”

In a draft commentary published in October, the EPA's own Science Advisory Board came out in opposition to the proposed rule change, saying that it was "in conflict with established science  . . . and the objectives of the Clean Water Act."

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