The EPA just announced plans to repeal the ‘Dirty Water Rule.’ Here’s what that means and what we did to make it happen

The EPA just announced its plan to repeal and replace the “Dirty Water Rule” — a Trump administration policy that left the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk from polluters

Joseph Gruber via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Mary Katherine Moore

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced its plan to repeal and replace the “Dirty Water Rule” — a Trump administration policy that left the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk from polluters. It’s the latest round in a 15-year-old debate over the scope of the Clean Water Act — and over our country’s responsibility to keep our waters safe for Americans. From nearly our first days as an organization, Environment America has worked to turn the tides in favor of clean water.

Clean water. What could be simpler?

The Clean Water Act of 1972 could not have been more precise in stating its goal: to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.” The slightly less scientific translation: clean water for America.

Or so it would seem until 2006. That’s when a Michigan developer named John Rapanos brought a case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that he did not need a federal permit to build a strip mall on certain wetlands, despite the mall’s potentially adverse effects on the wetlands. In its decision, the Supreme Court cast doubt on whether the Clean Water Act still protected 20 million acres of wetlands and half of our nation’s streams, putting our larger rivers and lakes — as well as the drinking water for more than 117 million people — at risk from pollution.

Environment New Jersey advocates participated in a clean water canoe event in 2015. Credit: Nicholas Thomas

Then came the Clean Water Rule

In the view of the Environment America clean water team, the Rapanos decision was wrong on the law, as well as the science of how streams and wetlands interact with major waterways and common sense. To end the legal uncertainty and prevent the damage left in its wake, the team studied its options in the courts, in Congress and in the regulatory arena. In 2009, as the Obama administration took office, we launched a campaign to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to close this loophole in America’s clean water protections.

We conducted and released research, including “Courting Disaster: How the Supreme Court Has Broken the Clean Water Act and Why Congress Must Fix It,” and then “Waterways Restored: The Clean Water Act’s Impact on 15 American Rivers, Lakes and Bays.

We then went directly to our decision-makers, holding meetings with more than 50 congressional offices and advocating in front of Congress and the EPA.

Our staff and members also held hundreds of visibility events across the country, assembling a coalition of more than 1,000 business owners, elected officials, farmers and health professionals.

In all, we helped gather more than 1 million grassroots supporters around our campaign from digital and in-person organizing, and submitted public comments from more than 200,000 Americans to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Then, when the polluters’ allies in Congress held hearings opposing the Clean Water Rule, we gathered letters from constituent groups from every corner of the country.

Our research, advocacy and organizing brought lawmakers on our side as we saw clean water allies rise to defend the Clean Water Rule in both chambers of Congress.

In 2015, our efforts paid off when the Obama administration enacted the Clean Water Rule, effectively restoring Clean Water Act protections to more than half our nation’s wetlands, 2 million miles of streams, and the drinking water sources for one in three Americans.

2015: EPA Admin. Gina McCarthy (right) and U.S. Asst. Sec. of the Army (Civil Works) Jo Ellen Darcy (left) signed the Clean Water for America rule with Margie Alt, then-Environment America executive director (standing, left). Credit: Sean Kennedy

The Trump administration’s rollbacks

Then, on day one in office, the Trump administration vowed to repeal the Clean Water Rule.

The administration swiftly initiated a years-long effort to repeal the Clean Water Rule and the protections it restored — and replace it with the Dirty Water Rule.

Environment America once again stepped up to protect our waterways.

We organized citizens to speak up for their waterways and urge elected officials and the Trump administration to keep the Clean Water Rule. We called on the EPA to uphold the rule, and our members and supporters submitted more than 200,000 comments to the agency.

Despite our best efforts, the Trump administration finalized its repeal of the Clean Water Rule and replaced it with the Dirty Water Rule in 2020 — a rule that polluters and developers have already abused at a shocking pace. We acted immediately, urging Congress and the courts to reverse the rule, a move that laid the groundwork for convincing the incoming Biden administration to restore protections.

The Dirty Water Rule left half our nation’s remaining wetlands and thousands of streams without protection of the Clean Water Act. Those streams help provide drinking water to millions of Americans. Wetlands help filter out pollutants, provide habitat for wildlife, and protect communities from flooding. However, without Clean Water Act protection, there is nothing the federal government can do to stop developers from paving over those wetlands or polluters from dumping chemicals into those streams.

Senior Director of our Clean Water for America Campaign John Rumpler preparing to testify before Congress on behalf of our clean water protections. Credit: Corey A. Gray

New administration — old protections? What’s happening with the Dirty Water Rule now?

Now that the Biden administration’s EPA has announced its intention to reverse the dangerous Dirty Water Rule, we have a chance to restore protections, once again, to more than half of our nation’s wetlands and thousands of streams.

Replacing Trump’s Dirty Water Rule with a new Clean Water Rule will be a welcome reprieve for our waters and all of us who depend on them. It won’t be easy: While, as we have seen, one president can unwind the executive actions of a predecessor, there are rules and procedures in place to make sure that agencies follow the law and solicit public input. We’ll watchdog the process and advocate for all deliberate speed.

More importantly, we’ll continue to educate the public about the role that protections such as the Clean Water Rule play in sustaining the quality of our environment and our lives. After all, the best insurance against the next Dirty Water Rule is overwhelming, unassailable, bipartisan public support for strong action to restore and maintain the integrity of our nation’s waters.



Mary Katherine Moore