EPA Overturns Clean Water Rule: What It Means for Waterways and Idaho

EPA Overturns Clean Water Rule: What It Means for Waterways and Idaho

On September 12, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled back protections for waterways, headwaters, and wetlands. Additional rules were adopted under the previous administration to ensure that many important waterways that were previously unprotected became included in the Clean Water Act. Referred to as the ‘Clean Water Rule’, it broadened the definition of “waters of the United States”, protecting tens of millions of additional acres of water. 

The current administration has repealed and rewritten the definition to narrow the scope of protected waterways. Many bodies of water – including headwaters, streams, wetlands, and smaller waterways – have lost protection under the Clean Water Act. This decision was an effort to loosen environmental protection regulations on businesses, specifically mining, gas, and oil companies. The administration felt that the previous definition protected too many waterways, making it too burdensome for these corporations to follow.

The new definition eliminates federal protection for at minimum 51% of wetlands and 18% of streams. Streams feed our rivers, and wetlands are vital for water quality, flood control, and wildlife. Losing these protections will have a devastating impact on water health – and the communities and wildlife that rely on it. 

This comes alongside 84 additional changes to environmental policy under the current administration that reduce protections for human and ecological health. Several of these laws have weakened or eliminated limits for contamination, reopened streams for dumping mining waste, loosened regulations for oil, gas, and mining emissions, while simultaneously reducing EPA legal authority, budget, and regulations.

Several years of scientific research, review, and public input were used to create the Clean Water Rule. Of the 1 million public comments received by the EPA, 87% supported instating the rule. Meetings with stakeholders, ranging from researchers and environmental organizations to mining and energy companies, were a part of the rule’s creation. The rule was largely viewed as a positive move to protect and ensure the vitality of waterways.

What does this change mean for Idaho?

This rule change is particularly impactful for western states. Many smaller and intermittent streams are no longer protected, even if connected to larger bodies of water. Wetlands absorb excess runoff and reduce flooding, work as a natural ‘water filter’, and provide important habitat for wildlife. Only wetlands connected to major bodies of water and navigable waterways will be protected. Considering many of our streams, waterways, and bodies of water are small or seasonal, Idaho has lost a tremendous amount of protection for our water. 

Prior to implementing the additional clean water measures, only two-thirds of Americans had protection for their drinking water under the Clean Water Rule. In many rural western communities, as few as 1/3 of drinking waters were protected under the Clean Water Act. This redefinition has reverted drinking water protections to these dangerous levels. Water is a dynamic resource; seasonal streams flow into rivers, wetlands overflow into streams, and surface water becomes groundwater that impacts wells, rivers, and lakes. Poor water quality impacts everything from soil to drinking water. We have lost important protections for water flowing to and from Idaho, compromising communities, wildlife, livestock, agriculture, and human health. 

Table sourced from Trinity Consultants, “  EPA Proposes to Revise Definition of Waters of the United States  ” (

Table sourced from Trinity Consultants, “EPA Proposes to Revise Definition of Waters of the United States” (