Obama uses executive power to address water pollution

As President Barack Obama heads into the later stages of his presidency, there are many initiatives that the administration has made priorities – and as of late, it appears that healthy waterways is one of them.

According to a recent White House statement, President Obama and his administration aim to make water pollution more of a focus after hearing input from public comments over the past year. The Clean Water Act, which was a groundbreaking piece of legislation aimed to protect designated streams and wetlands, has been around for more than four decades. However, over the years, several court decisions have made the provisions of the Clean Water Act less clear, creating a air of uncertainty when it comes to water quality.

"The new ruling could protect up to 60% of U.S. water bodies."

"One in three Americans now gets drinking water from streams lacking clear protection, and businesses and industries that depend on clean water face uncertainty and delay, which costs our economy every day," the White House press statement said. "Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution. That's why I called on the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clear up the confusion and uphold our basic duty to protect these vital resources."

What the ruling means
Under the new rule, the Obama administration more clearly outlines regulations that restore the federal government's power over protecting rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands across the U.S. Over several decades, some of these provisions have become less dominant when it comes to water protection, but President Obama is taking steps to restore the government's authorization, as written in the Clean Water Act.

Based on a Natural Resources Defense Council blog, the ruling does several important things in terms of water protection, including: 

  1. Making efforts to protect tributaries or water bodies connected to covered waters. Studies have shown that these two items are directly correlated with one another on biological, chemical and physical levels. 
  2. Some agricultural practices that are aimed to make water quality more effective should be exempted from the USACE's permit program.
  3. The ruling does not pertain to "other waters," or water bodies that are distant from covered waters. However, if these waters play a significant role to downstream waters in the watershed collectively, they would be protected.
  4. Not only will the ruling reaffirm existing language in the legislation, it will also affirm water bodies that were previously exempted due to administrative policy (the NRDC uses stock ponds dug in uplands as an example). Groundwater and tile drains, which were also not thought of as U.S. water bodies, will also be included in this ruling. 

According to The New York Times, many environmentalists have been pushing for such a ruling for some time, and have called these recent developments a much-needed step forward in designating which streams and lakes need to be protected, as well as taking steps to purifying Americans' drinking water. In fact, the Guardian points out that the new ruling could protect up to 60 percent of water bodies in the U.S. moving forward.

There are some detractors of President Obama's ruling, including many oil and gas manufacturers. Farmers and the makers of pesticides, as well as golf course owners, have stated that the regulatory changes would slow down economic growth in their sectors and also create issues when it comes to property rights. Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed their concern with the ruling as well, and will likely continue to voice their opinions about environmental protections with the presidential election on the calendar for 2016. Conservatives have stated that this is yet another example of the president's overreach, according to the Times, and they have begun drafting legislation that will either block or delay the ruling in Congress.

Many water resources across the U.S. are polluted or in peril due to widespread drought. Many water resources across the U.S. are polluted or in peril due to widespread drought.

Looking ahead to 2016
This ruling could be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Clean Water Act. According to the Guardian, water pollution and this recent ruling could play a major role during presidential debates and future regulatory decisions. Many areas of the country, specifically California and other western states, have endured prolonged periods of severe drought, and water pollution is widespread across the U.S. 

However, poor water quality has been affecting Americans from coast to coast, as well as the myriad aquatic species directly affected by water quality, for some time. One concern with conservatives in particular revolves around how this ruling will impact private property rights. Private property is a touchy subject for many Americans, but since millions of citizens are currently dealing with the widespread effects of drought and water pollution, there is also a consensus by many that something needs to be done. This means that likely, a healthy debate will continue to develop heading into an election year. 

President Obama has said that the ruling has in fact been law since the 1970s, and his recent actions simply return to the original guidelines written in the Clean Water Act. Because many of our water resources are in peril and property rights are at the heart of this issue, it's likely that this is not the last of the arguments concerning water quality.