Obama administration issues rule to protect more than 55 percent of New York’s streams

Media Contacts
Heather Leibowitz

Environment New York Research and Policy Center

NY, New York – More than 28,000 miles of the state’s streams, including those feeding the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound, will gain federal protections under a final rule signed today by top Obama administration officials. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years.

“The Long Island Sound, Great Lakes, and Hudson River waters we swim, fish, and boat in are only as clean as the streams that flow into them,” said Heather Leibowitz, Director with Environment New York. “That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”

“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “Protecting our water sources are a critical component of adapting to climate change impacts like drought, sea level rise, stronger storms, and warmer temperatures – which is why EPA and the Army have finalized the Clean Water Rule to protect these important waters, so we can strengthen our economy and provide certainty to American businesses.”

By closing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, today’s rule returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for over 11 million New Yorkers and one in three Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, vital for flood control and filtering pollutants, will also again be shielded under federal law.

The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands in a perilous legal limbo, allowing polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them in many cases without a permit. In a four-year period following the decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1500 cases against polluters, according to one analysis by The New York Times.

First proposed in March 2014, the joint rule by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is backed by robust scientific review and has gained broad support across a wide range of constituencies. Mayors, brewers, kayakers, anglers, small businesses, and farmers, have signaled their support. New Yorkers joined Americans across the country to submit 800,000 comments in favor of the rule last fall.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said, “New Yorkers deserve clean water and we know they are critical to our regional economy and communities. In Congress I will continue to lead the fight to protect our environment and ensure clean water for future generations of New Yorkers.”

Environment New York, among those pushing for restored stream protections for the better part of the last decade, has gathered more than 67,000 comments from New Yorkers and held almost 100,000 face-to-face conversations about the need to close the loophole in the Clean Water Act in the past year alone.

Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections, oil and gas companies, developers, and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them. The U.S. House has passed multiple bills to block or severely weaken the rule, including one measure as recently as two weeks ago.

While today’s action signaled the final chapter in the decade-long fight for small streams and headwaters, advocates warned today that U.S. Senate leaders were more determined than ever to use their authority derail the Clean Water Rule. Last Tuesday, a key subcommittee adopted a measure by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to thwart the rule. This summer, the Senate is likely to use the Congressional Review Act block the clean water protections, setting up a veto fight with the president.

“Today the administration signed and sealed critical protections for our rivers and streams,” said Leibowitz. “However, we need Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York to become a forceful advocate against polluters to make sure these clean water protections get delivered.”