The federal government yesterday adopted a new rule to protect streams and wetlands from pollution, a step that aims to safeguard clean drinking water for one in three Americans, or 117 million people.
The so-called clean water rule is important to residents in New Jersey and neighboring states that rely on the Delaware River and other surface-water sources, which provide drinking water for 15 million residents and probably a lot more.
Among other things, the new rule clearly defines and protects tributaries that affect the health of downstream waters and details how far safeguards extend to nearby waters.
In adopting the regulation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army said it is designed to provide more clarity and certainty as to what waters and other natural resources, such as wetlands, are protected from potential pollution.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,’’ said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a press release announcing the adoption of the rule.
For New Jersey, the rule closes loopholes that have left drinking-water sources for more than one in two residents at risk of pollution, according to David Pringle, campaign director of New Jersey Clean Water Action.
At least half of the state’s population relies on surface water for its drinking-water supplies, drawing from the Raritan, Hackensack, Passaic, and sources in the New Jersey Highlands. In southern New Jersey, there is a much greater reliance on groundwater supplies.
“From the Delaware to the D&R (Delaware & Raritan) canal, the waters that provide our drinking water can only be clean if the streams that flow into them are protected,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “That’s why today’s action is a huge victory for clean water.’’
The rule tries to close a loophole created by decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court dating back to 2001 and 2006, which created confusion in the implementation of the clean-water law, initially adopted 40 years ago.
The rule, however, is not likely to stem controversy. The American Energy Alliance, an industry trade group, described the proposal as “an attack on individuals’ private-property rights under the guise of protecting our country’s waterways.’’
The proposal also is likely to face opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress, where efforts to block the rule were approved by the U.S. House as recently as two weeks ago.
But McCarthy, in a media call yesterday afternoon, said the new rule ensures that waters are protected without adding any additional permit requirements. It also retains previous exemptions and exclusions from the clean-water law, according to the EPA. “There have been substantial changes to this rule,’’ she said.
New Jersey oversees administration of its wetlands program, but some environmentalists say the rules have been weakened since the Christie administration took office.
“They are closing some of the loopholes that would give the EPA some tools in preventing New Jersey from rolling these protections back,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
More than 4,000 miles of New Jersey’s streams, including those feeding the Delaware River and the Jersey Shore, will gain federal protections under the rule signed yesterday by the Obama administration, according to environmentalists. The new safeguards afford protections to small streams, headwaters, and wetlands that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly 10 years, they said.
The new rule restores clear protection to 60 percent of the nation’s stream miles and millions of aces of wetlands that were historically protected by the Clean Water Act, but have lacked guaranteed safeguards for nearly a decade, environmentalists indicated.