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Biden and Congress clash over water protection rule

Tom Koerner
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Senate on Wednesday, March 29 approved a resolution to overturn the Biden administration’s expanded protections for waterways. President Joe Biden has said he will likely veto the measure, which also passed the House in mid-March.

The Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, defines what waterways are federally protected under the Clean Water Act. Definitions have changed over the years – the Obama administration's rule widened the law's scope, and the Trump administration's narrowed it. This new rule, by largely restoring the definition in place before 2015, is designed to be "durable," as EPA Administrator Michael Regan has said.

Still, conservative lawmakers – and a few Mountain West moderate Democrats – argue the changes are overreaching and can hinder farmers, ranchers and business owners. The Senate voted 53-43 to overturn the EPA’s rule, which took effect March 20.

“Our farmers and ranchers do not need the federal government telling them what they can and cannot do on their private land,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo, in a statement.

Joining the 49 Republicans in the Senate were Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz, and four Democrats, including Nevada Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

“After listening to Montana farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders, it’s clear this rule isn’t right for Montana. Clean water is simply too important to our state’s economy and the health of our communities to get this wrong,” Tester said in a statement.

Proponents of the new WOTUS rule say it's a compromise that provides exceptions for businesses while fighting against pollution.

“The Biden rule requires us to be good neighbors and stewards of our planet while also providing flexibility for those who need it,” said Tom Carper, D-Del., during testimony.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing the reach of the Clean Water Act in Sackett v. EPA, a case out of Idaho. Separately, Idaho and Texas argued in a lawsuit that the new WOTUS rule shouldn't be implemented until the Supreme Court makes its decision. A federal judge in Texas agreed, resulting in a March 19 injunction that kept rule from going into effect in only those two states.

With President Biden certain to veto Congress’ resolution, the votes were largely symbolic. But environmental advocates argue that the integrity of the country's bedrock water protection law has already been compromised.

“A majority of Senators elected to represent the American people have chosen to side with corporate polluters and play politics with one of our most critical natural resources. This is inexcusable,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous in a statement.

The vote in the House of Representatives was 227-198 to overturn the rule. Nine Democrats sided with conservatives lawmakers and voted in favor of the resolution, while one Republican voted against it.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey