Latest: Clean Water Act to protect more waterways

After years of confusion over which waters are protected by the EPA, Waters of the US rule is updated.

  • A dry wash in Arizona that shows signs of water flow.

    Finetooth/Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, an Arizona developer flattened a wide swath of the Lower Santa Cruz River, and despite his insistence that he didn’t violate the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined him $1.25 million. The case epitomized how two Supreme Court decisions created confusion over which waterways the federal government has power to protect from pollution and bulldozing. Things were particularly murky in the West, where streams can stay dry for long periods (“Muddy waters of the U.S.,” HCN, 6/23/14).

Under a new federal rule, tributaries to protected waters and nearby wetlands will be covered, no matter how often they’re dry, if they have signs of flow such as beds, banks and high-water marks. Shallow desert pools called playas lose out, as do small streams that don’t flow into waters that are big enough to navigate by boat or cross state lines. Overall, more waters and wetlands will likely be protected, though still fewer than before the Supreme Court curtailed the Clean Water Act’s reach in 2001 and 2006.

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