Since taking office, Donald Trump has waged a relentless attack on the nation’s waterways, but his efforts to strip away protections for rivers and wetlands have run into a tide of legal resistance.
One of Trump’s first environmental policy directives was to choke off the foundational law protecting water bodies and aquatic habitats, the Nixon-era Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under Trump nominee Scott Pruitt, targeted a keystone amendment to the Clean Water Act developed by the Obama administration, which strengthened the agency’s ability to control and monitor a range of water bodies and pollution sources.
In mid-August, however, a South Carolina District Judge blocked Pruitt’s suspension of the rule in early 2017, validating environmentalists’ claims that the unilateral measure to claw back clean water regulations was undemocratic and illegal.
Known as the Waters of the United States rule, the Obama-era framework strengthened the Clean Water Act by covering more smaller water bodies—namely tributaries and estuaries linked to larger watersheds—to extend the scope of environmental monitoring, contamination standards and reporting requirements on industrial sources like farm waste, mining pollution, power plant toxins, and dirty industries like mining and coal-fired power plants. Though the Obama administration often sought compromise with industry on environmental regulations, the landmark water rule had been the bane of many an industry lobbyist since it was first issued in 2015 because it would have extended the regulatory powers of the EPA — which has traditionally overseen major “navigable waters” like oceans and river systems — to cover minor interlinked water bodies, including mudflats, wetlands and wet meadows and other aquatic environments that feed into the larger network of waterways.