WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Wednesday issued new rules to protect streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, a step it said would help keep drinking water safe, but farmers and industry groups argued the regulation will be costly.
The Waters of the United States rule, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, aims to give clarity about which bodies of water the EPA would have jurisdiction over.
"This rule responds to the public's demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, Civil Works.
The EPA and Army Corps said they took Wednesday's action after receiving requests for over a decade from members of Congress, state and local officials, environmental and agriculture groups and scientists seeking clarity around what is protected under the Clean Water Act.
"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," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Among key elements of the new rule are that it "defines and protects tributaries" that have an impact on downstream waters, and focuses on streams that can carry pollution downstream, not ditches.
Protecting American waters is key to combating climate change, a priority of the Obama administration, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.
"Protecting our water sources is a critical component of adapting to climate change impacts like drought, sea level rise, stronger storms, and warmer temperatures," she said.
The agencies held more than 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country and reviewed over one million public comments, they said.
Republican Senator David Vitter, chair of the Senate small business committee, said that small businesses were excluded from the rulemaking process.
"The federal government shouldn't be regulating puddles on private property in the first place. I will continue to work with my colleagues to reverse and withdraw this rule before the economic devastation begins," he said.
For rural electric cooperatives that provide electricity to rural areas, there is concern that the rule will lead to more red tape.
"Electric cooperatives are very concerned the significantly expanded definition would lead to a bureaucratic nightmare for the nation’s electric co-ops," National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jo Ann Emerson said.
(This story has been refiled to fix a typo in the second paragraph to change State to States)
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Alan Crosby)