DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Donald Trump today will sign an executive order that aims to roll back an environmental regulation. It is called the Waters of the U.S. rule. Susan Phillips from member station WHYY explains that this rule applies only to small bodies of water, but it has some big opponents.
SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it defined waters that would need some protection from pollution as navigable. For most of us, that means big enough to float a boat. But over the years, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers saw that more protection was needed.
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PHILLIPS: I'm standing next to a bubbling brook in rural Pennsylvania. It's small enough to just hop over. The water's running downstream to a larger creek and into a larger river, the Delaware River, which provides 16 million people with drinking water. But this stream doesn't always run. Should this stream be protected like others?
OWEN MCDONOUGH: Basically, all parties have agreed that it doesn't strictly mean navigable anymore.
PHILLIPS: Owen McDonough is with the National Association of Homebuilders. His group and others thought the Obama administration went too far in defining which small streams and isolated marshes should be subject to federal authority. McDonough says the Obama plan includes some so-called prairie potholes, or ephemeral streams, which don't even have water in them year-round.
MCDONOUGH: So you can think about farm fields in Bucks County, Pa., that is changing hands from longtime farmer now to a builder and developer. And that builder and developer is all of the sudden faced with a property that has jurisdictional waters of the United States on it for which he or she has to secure federal permits, offset his impacts.
PHILLIPS: Others that have lobbied hard against the water rule include the oil and gas industry, the Chamber of Commerce and farmers.
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KACEY CLAY: (Singing) This ditch is dry on my farm today, not a puddle anywhere.
PHILLIPS: The American Farm Bureau launched a Ditch the Rule campaign. This video shows a farmer's wife running through fields barefoot.
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CLAY: (Singing) Once more the EPA is knocking at our door with a brand new rule. They want to regulate us more.
PHILLIPS: The bureau's Don Parrish says farmers and ranchers feared they would need a permit in case pesticides or fertilizers ran off into every ditch or puddle on their farm. And mistakes could mean heavy fines or even jail time.
DON PARRISH: I think as much as anything, they actually belittled a lot of farmers' concerns. You know, the administrator called some of our concerns silly and ludicrous.
ELLEN GILINSKY: There's a lot of bloodshed over this rule that didn't need to be.
PHILLIPS: Ellen Galinsky worked for the EPA under Obama. She says the Waters of the U.S. rule has been widely misunderstood. She traveled the country to talk with farmers and ranchers...
GILINSKY: And actually walk their fields and ask them, you know, (laughter) what are you worried about? And they would point to certain features and say, oh, my God, we're not going to be able to clean out this ditch. We're not going to be able to do this. We're not going to be able to do that. And I would say that's not true.
PHILLIPS: Supporters of the rule say some states simply aren't able to ensure clean drinking water and healthy streams on their own. Gilinsky hopes the Trump administration can finally get all sides to agree on which waters the federal government should protect. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL LANOIS' "FLAMETOP GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.