South Ga. judge blocks Obama-era policy to curtail water pollution

By: - August 23, 2019 8:20 am

Georgia Environmentalists are appealing a federal court ruling that tossed an Obama-era policy that reset federal protection for “navigable” water resources. Photo courtesy Dade County, Ga.

A ruling from a federal judge in south Georgia will continue to thwart a proposal to pinpoint which waterways are subject to federal oversight, marking what may be the final round of the fight over President Barack Obama’s signature water initiative.

The Obama administration’s proposal found rocky waters from the start in 2015, encountering immediate opposition among rural landowners, farmers, developers and other industry interests who saw the changes as an overreach and loathsome expansion of the Clean Water Act.

The federal law, first passed in 1972, requires a permit before a pollutant can be discharged into “navigable” waters, and the Obama-era rule was pitched as a way to clear up confusion over which bodies of water qualified.

Environmentalists lauded the plan’s goal of significantly curtailing pollution in the country’s waterways by targeting the more minor tributaries that feed into them.

Opponents, though, have successfully blocked the rule in more than two dozen states, including Georgia. Judge Lisa Godbey Wood’s ruling this week – that federal agencies overstepped their legal authority when crafting the rule – ensures that this will continue to be the case here.

Megan Desrosiers, CEO of One Hundred Miles, an advocacy group focused on protecting Georgia’s coast, said the ruling will not have much impact since the rule was already not being enforced.

“However, this ruling does signal that it is now time to close the book on President Obama’s Clean Water Rule and put our energy into fighting the Trump administration’s attempts to erode clean water protections,” Desrosiers said.

Republican state officials, meanwhile, celebrated the decision as a major win. Georgia was the lead plaintiff in a multi-state challenge to the rule.

“Today’s court ruling rightfully rejected gross federal overreach into state land and water regulation, ultimately protecting the livelihoods of thousands of Georgia farm families and agribusinesses,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement Thursday.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said federal regulators “tried to sell us a bill of goods with this wretched rule.”

“The court has now rightfully replied back ‘going, going, gone,” Black said.

The Trump administration is in the process of undoing the Obama-era plan and replacing it with a more limited view of which waterways require federal oversight. Georgia, through Attorney General Chris Carr, joined a 17-state group that has backed the proposal.

Starting that process was one of President Donald Trump’s first acts in office, but his replacement plan is likely to face its own legal struggles.

“If they insist on finalizing a rule anything like what they have proposed, that will get challenged in court,” said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The proposed new plan would restrict the law to a level unseen since the Nixon administration, Holman said. Streams and tributaries without regularly flowing water – known as ephemeral waterways – would be excluded under the Trump plan.

As an example, Holman said the San Juan River, which is a major tributary of the Colorado River in the Southwest, receives most of its water from these inconsistent, rain-fueled streams.

“That is clearly a removal of protection that has been in place for decades,” he said.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.