State leaders and agriculture groups applauded an executive order issued by President Trump on Tuesday that directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider a controversial rule that sought to more clearly define which bodies of water the federal government has the power to police.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, warned that a rule reversal would threaten drinking water quality for millions of Americans.
The so-called "Waters of the U.S." rule, finalized under President Obama, was the subject of a legal challenge filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and more than two dozen other state attorneys general. The rule has also been drawn widespread complaints from farmers and ranchers who view it as a burdensome federal encroachment on private property rights.
“We welcome President Trump’s action today and are reviewing his executive order,” Paxton said in a statement Tuesday, calling it "is a significant step toward repealing the Rule and getting the American economy back on track."
The WOTUS rule "poses a burden to Texas property owners," he added.
A U.S. appeals court halted the rule nationwide in October 2015.
Whether it was a benign clarification or a federal power grab depends on whom you ask. The 1972 federal Clean Water Act made it illegal to pollute "navigable waters of the United States." The rule was supposed to clarify what could be defined as "navigable water."
The EPA always believed its jurisdiction stretched beyond traditional navigable waters, such as rivers and seas, to the smaller bodies of water and wetlands that can affect them, but it didn’t have a strong legal basis to prove it. The updated definition sought to clarify that authority, but it left ranchers and industry officials nervous about whether they will need to check with the government before using their own land.
Richard Thorpe, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, described the rule on Tuesday as "a misguided attempt to control water on our ranches and private lands by imposing overly burdensome regulations and harsh penalties on landowners."
"It would destroy the livelihoods of Texas ranchers by regulating them out of business, and threaten our ability to provide America with a safe and affordable food supply," he said in a statement. "I commend President Trump for recognizing the peril of such a rule and taking action to control federal overreach.”
But Luke Metzger, who heads Environment Texas, said the executive order "turns the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency on its head."
Trump "is telling the EPA to stop protecting these waters from polluters. It defies common sense, sound science and the will of the American people," he said.
The order may not have much immediate legal impact, according to various media reports.
“The executive order has no legal significance at all,” said Richard L. Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University told the New York Times. "It does the same thing as a phone call or a tweet. It just signals that the president wants it to happen.”
Because the rule was finalized under existing laws long before Obama left office, it cannot be simply undone with a stroke of the president’s pen, according to the Times, citing legal experts in both the Obama and Trump White Houses.
In a statement Tuesday, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said his agency “intends to immediately implement the Executive Order and submit a Notice to the Office of the Federal Register announcing our intent to review the 2015 Rule, and then to propose a new rule that will rescind or revise that rule."
"The President’s action today preserves a federal role in protecting water, but it also restores the states’ important role in the regulation of water," he said.
Trump is expected to issue an additional executive order in the coming weeks directing Pruitt to dismantle another major environmental regulation enacted under the Obama administration. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Trump intends to order a rewrite of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s state-by-state effort to fight climate change by shifting energy development away from coal power to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable resources.
That rule is also the subject of a high-profile legal challenge, this one led by Paxton and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. The U.S. Supreme Court halted the rule in February of 2016, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments in the case last September.
Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.