By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
New federal water rule addresses health of streams, other wetlands
Opponents call move government overreach
Placeholder Image

Coming Sunday

The Times begins a special series on the health of Lake Lanier and its tributaries.

Federal officials rolled out new clean water regulations Wednesday focusing largely on the health of streams and other wetlands that help feed into primary drinking sources.

“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said Gina McCarthy, Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

Specifically, the new regulations, issued by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, say that a tributary must show physical features of flowing water — a bed, bank and high water mark — to warrant protection.

The Clean Water Rule also addresses waters that are next to rivers and lakes and their tributaries because “science shows that they impact downstream waters,” EPA officials said.

Also, the rule limits protection to ditches that are built out of streams or function like streams and can carry pollution downstream.

The new rule doesn’t change how stormwater is treated but encourages “the use of green infrastructure,” and it doesn’t create any new permitting requirements for farmers.

“Activities like planting, harvesting and moving livestock have long been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation, and the Clean Water Rule preserves those exemptions,” officials said.

Horace Gee, Gainesville’s environmental services administrator, said he believes the rules, which were released after public meetings and other input, “is a good compromise everyone can live with.”

Otherwise, “this is not a big deal,” he said. “The original, proposed rule would have basically put regulations on all waters and/or ditches that carried or pooled water, even ornamental ponds.”

“After the public meetings … the rules were relaxed a lot,” Gee said. “The first draft would’ve even regulated farm and agriculture ponds. … EPA would have had to permit any work on ditches, tributaries and ponds.”

Environmentalists and other clean water advocates praise the new rules.

“The science is solid. This rule does the right thing,” said Chris Manganiello, policy director for the Georgia River Network.

“Millions of Americans who drink water every day will benefit from a rule that clarifies protection for wetlands and headwater streams. Fish and wildlife will also benefit.”

Manganiello said “it’s important to remember, because federal waters and state waters are separately defined, the proposed rule will not affect state water laws.”

“Bottom line, because of EPA’s decision, Georgia’s wetlands, rivers and lakes stand a better chance of being fishable, drinkable and swimmable for generations to come.”

Joanna Cloud, executive director of Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, said, “Anything that gives us more enforcement about keeping the tributaries clean is a good thing.

“I think right now we lack some enforcement, both on the state and federal level, and that’s frustrating for a lot of parties.”

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper hasn’t been able to closely review the final ruling to determine if it has changed from earlier versions, but the group “supports any regulation that protects our waterways and drinking water supplies,” said Jason Ulseth, who heads the organization.

And Jennette Gayer, director with Environment Georgia, said, “Georgia rivers … can only be clean if we protect the streams that feed them.

“That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”

The rules are designed to clarify which smaller waterways fall under federal protection after two Supreme Court rulings had left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain.

McCarthy said the waters affected would be those with a “direct and significant” connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected.

Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 left 60 percent of nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands without clear federal protection, according to EPA.

Regulations would kick in and force a permitting process only if a business or landowner took steps to pollute or destroy those waters.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that the rules will provide needed clarity for business and industry and “will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.”

The rules face deep opposition from the Republican-led Congress and farmers concerned that every stream, ditch and puddle on their private land could now be subject to federal oversight. The House voted to block the regulations earlier this month, and a similar effort is underway in the Senate.

“The EPA and Army corps’ new rule threatens the property rights of not just Northeast Georgia farmers, but any landowner,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

“Even dry ditches could become the domain of federal bureaucrats, ready to hike taxes and fees. (Officials) ignored public and state input, producing its rule despite bipartisan measures in Congress to stop it, Supreme Court decisions and little scientific or economic support.

“Redefining navigable waterways to include almost any trickle is another executive power grab that I’m committed to stopping,” Collins said.

Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said his panel will consider the Senate bill to force the EPA to withdraw and rewrite the rules this summer.

McCarthy has acknowledged the proposed rules issued last year were confusing and said the final rules were written to be clearer. She said the regulations even add some new exemptions for artificial lakes and ponds and water-filled depressions, among other features.

These efforts were “to make clear our goal is to stay out of agriculture’s way,” McCarthy said in a blog on the EPA website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.