Washington — Drinking water for 117 million Americans will be protected under new government rules protecting small streams, tributaries and wetlands from pollution and development, the Obama administration said Wednesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a final regulation on what rivers, streams or wetlands are “waters of the U.S.” subject to federal oversight.

The rule, issued after years of debate and delay, will help curb algal blooms or pollutants in waterways like the Mississippi River or bodies such as Lake Erie, the agencies said.

The regulations would only kick in if a business or landowner takes steps to pollute or destroy those waters.

Even before the EPA released its final rules, the plan was running into deep opposition from farm groups and the Republican-led Congress. Most Michigan Republican representatives criticized the regulations as vast federal overreach.

The U.S. House voted to block the regulations earlier this month in a bill that requires the EPA to try again. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, urged her colleagues to pass a similar bill under consideration in the Senate.

“Fortunately, this isn’t over,” Miller said in a statement. “Now, more than ever, this legislation is necessary to restore the integrity of our regulatory process and protect the hardworking Americans that too often have to pay the high price of compliance — especially our farmers.”

Echoing the concerns of farm groups, lawmakers have said the rules could greatly expand the reach of the clean water law and create confusion among officials in the field as to which bodies of water must be protected.

Farmers wary of more federal regulations are concerned that every stream, ditch and puddle on their private land could now be subject to federal oversight.

The EPA says the rules will help landowners understand exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act.

For example, a tributary must show evidence of flowing water to be protected — such as a bank or a high water mark.

Two Supreme Court rulings had left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule will only affect waters that have a “direct and significant” connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected.

The EPA has said 60 percent of the nation’s streams and waterways are vulnerable, and these rules clarify which of those waters are protected.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that the rules “will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.”

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said his panel will consider the Senate bill to force the EPA to withdraw and rewrite the rules this summer.

The Obama rule is the latest reverberation from a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned lower court judgments against two sets of Michigan property owners who sought to develop land designated as wetlands by the government.

At issue is whether four manmade ditches or concrete drains in Macomb and Bay counties were affected by the 1972 landmark environmental law governing the handling of wetlands.

In one case, Midland developer John Rapanos filled in a portion of one property with sand, arguing it had no wetlands or none under federal jurisdiction. The nearest navigable waterway was a Lake Huron tributary river about 20 miles away, but regulators said adjacent ditches provided a direct surface link.

In late 2008, Rapanos and the federal government reached a deal that included a $150,000 fine and creating 100 acres of wetlands in Midland and Arenac counties to make up for 54 acres the feds said he filled in.

The EPA’s McCarthy has acknowledged the proposed rules issued last year were confusing and said the final rules were written to be more clear.

She said the regulations don’t create any new permitting requirements for agriculture and even adds some new exemptions for artificial lakes and ponds and water-filled depressions, among other features.

But the agriculture industry indicated Wednesday it isn’t reassured as it prepares to review the final regulation.

“Based on EPA’s aggressive advocacy campaign in support of its original proposed rule — and the agency’s numerous misstatements about the content and impact of that proposal — we find little comfort in the agency’s assurances that our concerns have been addressed in any meaningful way,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.


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