Dirty Water Rule

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child playing on a rope swing over a river

Since it was enacted in 1972, the federal Clean Water Act has played a central role in safeguarding and improving many of our nation’s waterways and wetlands. This seminal environmental law protects the rivers, lakes, and streams upon which millions of Americans rely for drinking water and for activities like fishing and swimming. The law also protects millions of acres of wetlands that keep those rivers, lakes, and streams clean, while reducing flood damage and providing invaluable habitat for the nation’s abundant wildlife. In 2015, the Obama administration clarified the Clean Water Act’s safeguards by issuing the Clean Water Rule, thereby ensuring the critical protections the act provides would apply to many important streams, wetlands, and drinking water sources across the country. 

But in April 2020, the Trump administration introduced a new regulation called the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which was issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers. We and our partners call it the “Dirty Water Rule,” because it harmfully—and illegally—narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act by revoking federal protections for countless important streams, wetlands, and other waters. In particular, the Dirty Water Rule excluded millions of miles of rain-dependent streams and millions of acres of wetlands from critical safeguards of the Clean Water Act. The rule represented the most severe weakening of clean water protections any administration has ever attempted since the Clean Water Act passed in 1972—not only misrepresenting the science on streams and wetlands but also posing substantial risk to our waters. 

During the Obama administration, NRDC defended attacks on the Clean Water Rule from industry. After the Trump administration introduced the Dirty Water Rule, NRDC sued EPA and the Army Corps alongside a broad coalition of environmental groups: Clean Wisconsin, Connecticut River Conservancy, Conservation Law Foundation, Mass Audubon, Merrimack River Watershed Council, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and Prairie Rivers Network. 

Most recently, in August 2021, in another lawsuit challenging the Dirty Water Rule brought by tribes represented by Earthjustice, a federal judge tossed out Trump’s illegal rule. This represents a major victory for science and public health and while it’s good news, the Biden administration must still act quickly to restore full legal protections for waters that supply drinking water to millions of people, protect communities from dangerous flooding, serve as places where people fish and swim, and provide essential habitat to countless wildlife.

Water pollution is still a serious problem in the United States, but our water quality has improved significantly over the past several decades, due in large part to the Clean Water Act’s pollution-control protections. NRDC will stay in this fight to protect our country’s waters and the people who depend upon them.

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