Timeline to Replace Clean Water Rule Released; Congress Dips its Toes in WOTUS; AFS Seeks Experts to Synthesize Science on Importance of Headwaters Streams to Fish

Last week, the White House released an updated timeline to repeal and replace the 2015 Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. According to a document released on Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers will not finalize their planned repeal of the Clean Water Rule until November and they are expected to release a "supplemental" proposal for the repeal this month.  In the meantime, the agencies will be working to release a new definition of "waters of the U.S." to clarify which wetlands and waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act this August, with a final rule expected more than a year later, in September 2019.

The FY2019 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations bill in the House of Representatives contains a provision that would repeal the 2015 Clean Water Rule. Earlier legislative efforts sought to exempt the repeal of the rule from the Administrative Procedures Act. AFS joined with its conservation partners to oppose the troublesome policy-rider in a letter to lawmakers and expressed support for the current rule that “conserves our nation’s critical headwater streams, shields communities from flooding, supplies drinking water to one in three Americans, and provides essential fish and wildlife habitat that supports an $887 billion outdoor recreation economy.”

Congress hasn’t been able to make any traction to legislatively define “waters of the U.S.” in recent years, but two members of the U.S. House of Representatives are trying to insert a provision in the Farm Bill that would narrowly define the scope of the Clean Water Act.  E&E News reported today that Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) propose to limit the scope of the Clean Water Act to include only "relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water" and "wetlands that have a continuous surface water connection" to them. The Farm Bill is expected to go to the House floor this week.

AFS supports a definition of “Waters of the U.S.” that provides protections for headwater streams and wetlands. Dr. Douglas Austen, Executive Director of the American Fisheries Society (AFS), stated that “the 2015 Clean Water Rule provided a scientifically sound definition of ‘Waters of the U.S.’ The move to roll back the rule puts U.S. headwater streams and wetlands at greater risk of being destroyed or polluted and imperils vital habitat for fish and aquatic resources.”

It is important that policy-makers on the Hill and in the Administration understand the implications of a narrower rule for fish.  In order to more fully address the proposal to define the scope of the Clean Water Act, AFS is seeking experts for a working group charged with synthesizing information on the critical role of headwaters streams for fish and fisheries.  The group will be charged with developing a formal public comment to the administrative record on the replacement rule and a synthesis article for Fisheries magazine.  This effort will be relatively short in duration with a goal of having a document ready for submission following the release of a new rule in August.

Contact AFS Policy Director Drue Winters ([email protected]) for more information.