Clean Water Rule 101

Hunters and anglers united to oppose a recent decision by the Trump administration to roll back the 2015 Clean Water Rule and leave vulnerable to pollution and destruction roughly 50 percent of wetlands and 60 percent of stream miles in the United States. The 2015 rule clarified and restored consistency to the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and helped protect millions of acres of wetlands and headwater streams critical to fish and wildlife populations, flood control and healthy drinking water.

Here's a breakdown of the history of the CWA:

Clean Water Act

First enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean Water Act was expanded in 1972 as the governing law against polluting our nation’s surface waters. The Environmental Protection Agency is required to implement CWA to safeguard the public from polluted drinking water and “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

The intent of Congress was to base decisions on the best available science through the promotion of continued research, analysis and evaluation to increase our scientific understanding to better the health and cleanliness of our nation’s waters.

Defining U.S. Waters

There are two Supreme Court rulings that are instrumental in defining CWA’s jurisdictional scope: Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Rapanos v. United States. Whether you agree or disagree with the interpretation and the scope of the Clean Water Act, these rulings created uncertainty about which streams, rivers and other bodies of water were protected under CWA.

2015 Clean Water Rule

In 2015, President Barack Obama enacted the Clean Water Rule – commonly referred to as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rulewith the intent of providing clarity to CWA and the definition of a “navigable water.” This rule restored critical protections for wetlands and headwater streams, providing Americans with clean drinking water and habitat for fish and wildlife. Unfortunately, today our nation sees annual wetland losses equal to the size of New York City’s Central Park.

These waters are incredibly important to fish and wildlife. They support big game species in the arid Southwest that rely on habitat around ephemeral and intermittent streams; they also support trout and salmon that are sensitive to habitat changes and require cold, clean waters. While riparian areas provide critical habitat to all big game species, wetlands like the Prairie Pothole Region are the lifeblood of America’s duck factory.  

During wet years, 70 percent of North American ducks are raised in the prairie pothole region, a landscape of wetlands that provide flood storage and breeding habitat for pintails, mallards and blue-winged teal. Trout and salmon spawn in small streams and are valuable fisheries for recreational, commercial fishing and tribal interests. Furthermore, the outdoor recreation industry generates nearly $887 billion annually and supports 7.6 million jobs that rely on healthy waters.

2019 Rollback of Clean Water Protections

Reverting to the Rapanos v. United States,Justice Scalia wrote the plurality decision stating that the dredge and fill provision in the Clean Water Act only applies to wetlands connected to permanent bodies of water – streams, rivers, lakes – by a constant surface connection to other waters, such as large rivers, lakes or oceans, and streams that flow only after a rainfall or flow intermittently into a temporary stream. This means wetlands and steams are subject to pollution, harming our clean drinking water and America’s hunting and fish heritage.The Trump administration repealed the 2015 Clean Water Rule and instated Scalia’s interpretation as the new WOTUS rule. This revisedrule now eliminates Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams and threatens the future of intermittent streams with seasonal flow fluctuations. Now, approximately 50 percent of wetlands and 60 percent of stream miles in the United States are vulnerable to pollution, harming our clean drinking water and America’s hunting and fishing heritage. 

The 2015 WOTUS definition restored lost protections for these waters and maintains the integrity of the Clean Water Act, a law that for more than 45 years has protected waters on which hunters and anglers depend.

Hunters and anglers know better than anyone that our streams and wetlands are inextricably linked to the health of fish, wildlife and their habitats in addition to ensuring that our outdoor traditions endure into the future. Under this revised rule, however, our legacy of stewardship is undermined, and our sporting heritage is unnecessarily threatened.


Support BHA’s work to conserve North America’s public lands and waters.

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