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Oklahoma officials express concern about new EPA definition of Clean Water Act's scope

Three dark brown cows stand in a small farm pond in a rolling pasture. Other cows stand nearby.
Missouri Department of Conservation
The EPA has updated the definition of "waters of the United States" several times over the last decade.

Changes to federal water regulations have Oklahoma officials bristling.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced an updated Waters of the United States rule on Dec. 30, prompting criticism from some Oklahoma officials.

The Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is meant to protect the country’s streams, rivers and lakes from pollution. The rule doesn’t put forth any regulatory requirements itself; it defines which bodies of water are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The original 2015 WOTUS rule put any wetlands or waterways that could feed into a river or lake under federal jurisdiction. That definition drew criticism for its potential to saddle farm ponds and pastures with regulations meant for drinking water sources.

The Trump administration repealed the 2015 WOTUS definition in 2019 and replaced it with a scaled-back version called the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which emphasized the states’ role in regulating water. In 2021, a federal court in Arizona threw out the Trump-era rule based on its disregard for climate change research, stating that leaving it in place “would risk serious environmental harm.”

Now the EPA has made good on the Biden administration’s promise to restore broader water protections. The updated rule is based on a pre-2015 “waters of the United States” definition, but takes recent court cases into consideration. The EPA says this change is meant to provide clarity on Clean Water Act regulations that have been in flux over the past decade.

“EPA is working to deliver a durable definition of WOTUS that safeguards our nation’s waters, strengthens economic opportunity, and protects people’s health while providing greater certainty for farmers, ranchers, and landowners,” EPA administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement from the agency.

But Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas said in a statement he doesn’t believe clarity has been achieved.

“During this time when increased agriculture production and growth are critical, the rule fails to provide certainty for America’s farmers and ranchers,” Lucas said.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, a case that involves the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act.

“EPA has chosen to make their own ruling ahead of the SCOTUS decision, which we may lead to yet another rule change in the near future,” Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur said in a statement. “We believe this illustrates a lack of regard for those that are doing the work to feed our nation and world.”

But according to the EPA, this rule change could further the Clean Water Act’s goal of waters that support agriculture, recreation and public health across the United States.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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