Dirty Water Rule

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 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. 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. And 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 threatened to reverse that progress with 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—narrows 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 excludes millions of miles of rain-dependent streams and millions of acres of wetlands from critical safeguards of the Clean Water Act. The rule—which represents the most severe weakening of clean water protections any administration has ever attempted since the Clean Water Act passed in 1972—not only misrepresents the science on streams and wetlands, but poses substantial risk to our waters. 

During the Obama administration, NRDC defended attacks on the Clean Water Rule from industry. Then we and our partners, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued the Trump administration in federal district court following its repeal of the rule in September 2019. 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 June 2021, President Biden’s administration announced it plans to propose to repeal the Dirty Water Rule. While that’s good news, every day that the rule stays in effect, America’s waterways remain at risk. The Biden administration should act quickly to restore full legal protections for the lakes and rivers that supply drinking water to millions of people.

NRDC will stay in this fight to protect our country’s waters and the people who depend on them.

Last Updated

June 09, 2021



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