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This Trump plan would strip protections from wetlands and smaller waterways

A new Trump administration proposal would reduce safeguards to millions of acres of waterways by removing federal oversight over smaller streams and tributaries. Judy Woodruff talks with Coral Davenport of The New York Times about how the plan would reverse decades of policy and how both industry and environmentalists are responding.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump administration proposed the biggest rollback today in water protection since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

    The move would reduce safeguards to millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of streams as well. This follows an expansion of water regulations under President Obama that was hugely controversial.

    Under the prior administration, the government expanded the type of waterways that fall under federal protection to include smaller streams and tributaries that feed into larger bodies of water. Farmers, ranchers and developers say that resulted in essentially a federal land grab.

    The new rules will limit oversight substantially, so that it will protect large bodies of water, the rivers that drain into them and nearby wetlands.

    Environmentalists are responding that this is a big blow against clean water.

    Coral Davenport has been following the latest developments for The New York Times, and she joins me now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, Coral, remind us, what were the expanded regulations under President Obama?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, the Obama regulation, it was called Waters of the U.S., would have extended federal protections beyond just these large bodies of water to pretty much every wetland, to small streams, to streams that didn't run year-round.

    And it would have required the users of land around that water to — it would have put a lot of restrictions on what they could do with that land. It would have created new restrictions on using chemical fertilizers and pesticides for farmers and for land developers, because those things, of course, can run off into the water bodies.

    It would have created limitations on certain kinds of plowing that farmers could do, how deeply they could plow, what kind of crops they could plow. So, it would really have — it would have required farmers to get permits from the EPA to use their land in certain ways.

    So farmers, rural land owners, real estate developers, all of them kind of said, look, this is — this puts a big, you know, burden of federal regulation on how we do business.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, environmentalists liked it, but there was a lot of pushback.

    So what exactly is the Trump administration doing? How much of all that are they pulling back?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, the new Trump — the proposed Trump replacement water rule would keep in place federal protection for major bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay or the Mississippi River. That's still covered.

    So are the major rivers that drain into it and, as you mentioned before, large wetlands that are directly adjacent to these large bodies of water. So a wetland that is, you know, right next a beach on the Atlantic Ocean would still be protected.

    Stripped away, removed from federal protection are millions and millions of acres of wetlands that don't meet that criteria, and many of these smaller streams that don't run year-round, that sort of fill up when there's a rainfall, dry up. None of those are subject to federal protections anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so the folks who were critical of what happened under President Obama, they — what are they saying right now?

  • Coral Davenport:

    They are overjoyed.

    You know, farmers and rural land owners who also, of course, make up President Trump's political base, this is exactly what they asked for. And they said, we feel like now we can do what we want with our land. We don't have to go to the federal government and ask for permission. So they got exactly what they asked for, and they're really happy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, environmentalists, coming from a different perspective, they are saying, not only is this a rollback of what President Obama did, but it's taking it back to what both Presidents Bush had done under their administrations.

    How do you explain that?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Yes, so something that the first President Bush in particular doesn't always get a lot of credit for is that he did actually pass a lot of environmentalist initiatives.

    And he campaigned — he was an avid fisherman.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Coral Davenport:

    And he campaigned on protecting wetlands. And he put in place some policies that were designed to make sure that — specifically that there was no loss of wetlands protection.

    And that policy was sort of further strengthened by his son, President George W. Bush. This strips away all of those protections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, including what happened under President George H.W. Bush and his son, George.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Yes, and Obama.

    So it's a very significant rollback that lifts federal protections, particularly on wetlands, you know, back to what it was more than 20 years ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what happens now after — this is a proposal. What happens next?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Right.

    So this is a proposal. It's open for public comment for 60 days. The Trump administration will then take that public comment under consideration. It could revise or make changes to the rule. And at some point next year, they are expected to then issue a final rule.

    And then it's done. And then I would expect the moment that it's completed, probably in the first half of 2019, we will start to see major lawsuits on behalf of environmental groups, states, you know, groups saying, this is going to lead to major pollution of wetlands and waterways.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were telling us the Trump administration expects that to happen. Do they expect they can win in court?

  • Coral Davenport:

    They absolutely do.

    But the timing of this rule is not accidental. The expectation is that they want to, you know, put out the final rule in 2019. Lawsuits get filed then. First, it will go to a federal court. And the expectation is that it will go before the Supreme Court sometime in 2020, and this administration very much wants that to happen during the first term of President Trump.

    They want to be able to — this administration wants to be able to be the ones to defend this in front of the Supreme Court. But there is an expectation that this current Supreme Court, now with justices selected by President Trump and a conservative leaning, you know, there is a confidence that they will uphold this rollback and a lot of other similar environmental rollbacks that we have seen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting that they're thinking it through…

  • Coral Davenport:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … to 2020.

  • Coral Davenport:

    The timing, the timing is absolutely a part of the thinking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coral Davenport with The New York Times, thank you so much.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Great to be here.

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