It’s Wednesday, January 4, and U.S. regulators want to better protect “waters of the United States.”

In an effort to safeguard hundreds of thousands of rivers, streams, and wetlands across the United States, the Biden administration finalized a new rule last week clarifying which of the country’s waterways qualify for federal protection under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The rule replaces a Trump-era policy from 2019, which sought to limit government oversight of waterways over concerns that protections would put too much of a burden on farmers and developers. That rule was rejected by federal judges in 2021 on the grounds that it would lead to “serious environmental harm.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the updated rule is based on Clean Water Act interpretations that were in place before 2015, when the Obama administration proposed expanding protections for U.S. waterways. It attempts to end years of political back-and-forth over the term “waters of the United States,” known as WOTUS, which determines which bodies of water are eligible for federal programs to prevent contamination and oil spills.

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In keeping with longtime definitions of “waters of the United States,” the revised rule applies to permanent wetlands and waterways that are connected to rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water that can be navigated by boat, although regulators say it’s also been updated to reflect recent Supreme Court decisions and the latest science. The rule provides greater clarity on what isn’t protected byWOTUS, including waste treatment centers and artificially irrigated areas.

Jon Mueller, vice president of litigation for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, welcomed the new rule, though he doesn’t expect it will end political battles around its interpretation. “There are a lot of factors at play,” he told me, when determining which bodies of water fit the WOTUS definitions.

An upcoming Supreme Court case could throw things into even greater confusion. The justices are expected to rule sometime this year whether a wetland on private land in Idaho is protected under the Clean Water Act. That decision could upend the new WOTUS definition and curtail the government’s power to protect waterways nationwide.

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