- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Once again drawing the ire of environmentalists, President Trump on Tuesday began to roll back Obama-era rules that gave the federal government wide authority over small bodies of water across the country.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to begin dismantling the “Waters of the U.S.” regulation, which gave the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers authority over streams, lakes, ponds and other waterways — a radical expansion of Washington’s reach under the decades-old Clean Water Act.

The president, who in his first weeks in office has made it a priority to undo environmental regulations that he says hamper economic growth, said the rule exemplified federal overreach.

“EPA’s so-called Waters of the U.S. rule is one of the worst examples of federal regulation. It has truly run amok,” Mr. Trump said during a White House ceremony Tuesday afternoon. “The Clean Water Act says the EPA can regulate navigable waters, meaning waters that truly affect interstate commerce. A few years ago the EPA decided that navigable waters can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land, or any place else they decide, right? It was a massive power grab.”

The Waters of the U.S. rule was controversial when it was unveiled in May 2015, with deep opposition from conservatives, energy companies, the agricultural industry and other stakeholders. Those critics took their complaints to federal court, which stayed the rule in October 2015 after just a few months in effect.

Mr. Trump’s action on Tuesday technically doesn’t take the regulation off the books for good, but it does give clear guidance to federal agencies that they must “review and reconsider” the rule immediately, potentially ending the ongoing legal battle.

In his order Mr. Trump relied on a legal opinion written more than a decade ago by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In that opinion Scalia said the “Waters of the United States” should apply only to permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water.

Just as Mr. Trump argued Tuesday, critics long have contended that under the Obama administration’s interpretation, the Waters of the U.S. rule could, in theory, be applied to ditches or puddles, though the EPA had denied that claim.

The move is the beginning of what will be a broad effort by Mr. Trump to use executive power to undo many Obama administration initiatives on climate change and the environment. The president is expected to soon sign another executive order undoing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the first set of national limits on carbon emissions from power plants.

Business leaders cheered Tuesday’s move as part of a broader effort to lessen the regulatory burden.

“The 2015 Waters of the United States rule was essentially a federal land grab. America’s businesses, farmers and other land owners and managers will be happy to see it reconsidered and properly withdrawn under President Trump,” said William Kovacs, senior vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But environmentalists and conservationists panned the executive order, and said the Trump administration is proving it will side with business interests over clean air and water.

“By playing games with the safety of our water, the administration puts us in danger and gives a free lunch to special interests,” said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation group that claims the executive order puts birds at risk.

“Millions of birds like herons, cranes and migratory ducks depend on clean and healthy wetlands and streams all across the country. We need a science-based plan for keeping our water clean. Is that too much to ask?” Mr. Yarnold said.

Trout Unlimited, a cold-water fisheries conservation group, expressed similar concerns.

“The Trump administration can change direction on this rule but they can’t change the fact that clean water is not a political issue. It is a basic right of every American,” the group’s president, Chris Wood, said in a statement. “Gravity works cheap, and it never takes a day off. The administration cannot stop water flowing downhill — and we all live downstream.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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