How Will New EPA Water Rules Affect NC?

May 27, 2015

The Haw River.
Credit Keith Weston / WUNC

Depending on the perspective, the announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency was instituting a new, updated and clarified Clean Water Rule is either a cause for celebration in North Carolina or a cause for fear that it will choke the state's economy

What is most likely, of course, is that the rule will come under further partisan attacks.

While Congress and President Obama fight it out, examine some of the ways in which the Water Rule will affect North Carolina: 

1. The main purpose of the Clean Water Rule, according to the EPA, is to "more precisely define" what bodies of water "form the foundation of the nation's water resources" and are thus protected by the Clean Water Act. Where the headwaters of a river begin, for example, can have important ramifications on development near it. In various decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has made matters more confusing, so the agency is attempting to make it as clear as possible to farmers, developers, and anyone else who has a significant interest in land and water management. Because of its growing population, status as a major hog and chicken producer, and long and varied coastline, North Carolina is uniquely impacted by any water rule changes.

2. Carolina Bays are mysterious bodies of water caused either by wind or meteor showers; there is no consensus by scientists. Regardless, there are hundreds in eastern North Carolina alone, and they are important for flood control and as natural habitat. The new Water Rule more clearly defines Carolina Bays as protected waters, on a case by case basis.

3. The Republican members of North Carolina's Congressional Delegation really do not like the EPA's Clean Water Rule. Here's a sampling:

Rep. Virginia Foxx on House Bill 1732, an effort to prevent EPA from making new water rules: "This common sense legislation prevents an out-of-touch administration from threatening the livelihood of North Carolina’s farmers and saddling local governments with exorbitant compliance costs."

And this:

Rep. David Rouzer on the Clean Water Rule: "The new rule is so vague that it could require our farmers and property owners to get permission from a federal bureaucrat before acting on their own property.  In talking with small business owners, farmers, realtors, and homebuilders, it’s clear the rule change could negatively affect every industry."

As to Rep. Rouzer's point about federal over-reach and its impacts on farmers specifically: the EPA responds: 

The final rule doesn’t create any new permitting requirements for agriculture, maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions, and even adds exclusions for features like artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from construction, and grass swales—all to make clear our goal is to stay out of agriculture’s way. Just like before, a Clean Water Act permit is only needed if a water is going to be polluted or destroyed—and all exemptions for agriculture stay in place. 

4. At the end of the day, all of the celebrating by environmentalists, hand-wringing by business lobbying groups, and partisan bickering by both may very well be much ado about nothing: by its own estimates, the new EPA Water Rule only expands the reach of the Clean Water Act by about 3 percent.

As important as water is, it is likely this development will get lost in the upcoming announcement this summer from the agency on its final rules regarding climate change.