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Trump to propose ‘narrower definition’ for water protection

The Trump administration this week rolled back Obama-era regulations on the Clean Water Act, which was established to limit the amount of pollution in U.S. bodies of water and to protect sources of drinking water. Critics called the regulations an example of government overreach. Coral Davenport, a New York Times reporter covering energy and environmental policy, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Trump administration rolled back Obama-era regulations on the Clean Water Act this week. The restrictions were established to limit the amount of pollution in U.S. bodies of water and to protect sources of drinking water for about one third of the country. Critics said they were an example of government over-reach. Joining me now from Washington D.C. is Coral Davenport, New York Times reporter covering energy and environmental policy.

    So what were the rules that were being rolled back?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Hari, the rule which was put forth by the Obama administration in 2015, it was called Waters of the United States. And essentially what that rule did was clearly define a lot of sort of smaller bodies of water — wetlands, tributaries, streams, even ditches — as coming under federal protection as waters of the United States. That protection already existed for very large bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay or Mississippi River. And that rule really clearly defined even smaller bodies of water and wetlands that drain into those smaller bodies of water as being subject to federal protection and thus they couldn't be polluted, they couldn't have runoff, landowners around those bodies of water would have to get permit to use the land in certain ways. So this rule defining these bodies of water, protecting them is what was stripped away.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This week, we had the head of the Environmental Protection Agency co-author an op-ed that says this was government overreach. What does he mean by that?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Essentially, the biggest opponents of this rule were rural landowners, real estate developers, groups that said look, this rule is allowing the government to tell us how we can use our land. And it was to a large extent. It was saying if you're on a farm and you have a stream or a ditch that drains into a larger body water, you have to get a permit from the EPA before you can use your land in certain kind of ways that might pollute that water. And so landowners said, you know this is the federal government literally coming in and telling us what we can and can't do on our land. That was the objection to this rule.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So if you're a farmer or you're a golf course owner, a real estate developer, the kinds of pesticides you might use on your crops or on your lawns might flow into one of these ditches and that might go into a larger body.

    Exactly, that's the complaint.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, so now what will replace this rule?

  • Coral Davenport:

    The Trump administration has said they intend to put forward a new rule or replacement rule, the Trump administration's versions of the Waters of the United States by the end of the year. And essentially it's just expected to be a much narrower definition of what gets this federal protection, so wetlands are not expected to be included for the large part. The Obama rule included protection for underground bodies of water. So you know if you had a stream that drained underground into a larger body of water that counted. Those are not expected to be protected under the new rules. So there's a lot of sort of smaller bodies of water and wetlands that will not be subject to federal protection under the expected Trump rule, which they're saying they'll put out by the end of the year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now the Obama rule wasn't already instituted or rolled out in every state in the country, right?

  • Coral Davenport:

    That's right. It had been rolled out nationally but there has been so much objection to it, it's been implemented in about half the states and not implemented in about half the state.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. And finally this is not in a vacuum, in the political context this was something that the president campaigned on. He thought that this was government overreach. And for him this is a win from whom, his farmer base?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Yes. I mean, this is as you said something, this was a major issue that the president campaigned on. He vowed to do it in his first weeks in office and this delivers a big win to him for a major political base. And that's rural landowners, farmers. And that's a group that has been sort of frustrated with President Trump lately. They have been hurt by some of the tariffs that the administration has been put forth. They've been hurt by some of the rollbacks on ethanol mandate. So farmers have been feeling a little bit of a burden lately from Trump administration policies. This delivers them a direct win that they'd asked for, that the president campaigned on. [00:04:23][40.6]

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Coral Davenport of the New York Times joining us from Washington tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Great to be with you, Hari. Thank you.

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