News Feature | November 19, 2015

How The Clean Water Rule Flows From The Top

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,


Water policy is a national debate, but much of the day-to-day enforcement happens at the county level. So what will the EPA’s controversial Clean Water Rule mean for local oversight?

The backdrop: The Clean Water Act, established 43 years ago, directs states to enforce regulations that meet or exceed federal standards. In turn, each state sets standards that are then enforced at the county level, according to

"The EPA tells the states to tell the counties what we are supposed to do as far as regulating," according to Tim Davis, the environmental compliance manager for Greene County, MO.

Water conditions in different counties can vary significantly, which means enforcement presents a patchwork of different issues. "Watersheds do not recognize political boundaries in any shape or form,” said Joe Pitts, a water conservation expert and former state environmental staffer.

Permits are an important part of enforcing clean water regulations. In Missouri, the state issues permits allowing treated wastewater to be released into waterways. “There are hundreds of permits within the James River Basin. Of those permits, 36 different communities treat and dump their treated wastewater into streams that flow into the river,” the report said.

Here’s where the new Clean Water Rule comes in. Stakeholders differ on how they say it will affect the permitting process at the county level. For instance, Missouri State Rep. Lincoln Hough, a Republican, says the rule would ruin the permitting system. Opponents say the system could be flooded with applications.

"Again, what I don't know is are we required now to have a permit to operate in the agricultural environment that we've been operating under for the last 15 or 20 years?" Hough said, per the report.

Pitts, the environmentalist, said the new rule would improve accountability in the system. "It's designed so that you as an upstream landowner can't take an action that makes that water unavailable to a downstream water user."

The fate of the rule is uncertain. Created by the U.S. EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the rules “were slated to take effect earlier this year, but a federal court has temporarily suspended the rules while legal challenges play out,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

The EPA argues that the rule is necessary to protect waterways and because Supreme Court decisions make it unclear what the agency may regulate under the Clean Water Act. Fueled by the aggravation of conservatives and the agriculture lobby, opponents have framed the proposal as a costly and burdensome example of government overreach.

For all of our coverage of the Clean Water Rule, visit Water Online’s Source Water Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Map of United States," © 2009 Cyborglibrarian, used under an Attribution- ShareAlike 2.0 Genericlicense: