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In this Dec. 11, 2018, file photo, an egret looks for food along Valhalla Pond, in Riverview, Fla.

Chris O'Meara/The Associated Press

The Trump administration on Thursday ended federal protection for many of the nation’s millions of miles of streams, arroyos and wetlands, a sweeping environmental rollback that could leave the waterways more vulnerable to pollution from development, industry and farms.

The policy change, signed by heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, narrows the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the half-century-old Clean Water Act.

Since his first weeks in office, President Donald Trump has targeted environmental and public health regulations that he says imposed unnecessary burdens on business.

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The change to the clean water rule had long been sought by builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others. But environmental groups and public-health advocates say the rollback will allow businesses to dump pollutants into newly federally unprotected waterways and fill in some wetlands, threatening public water supplies downstream and harming wildlife and habitat.

EPA head Andrew Wheeler told reporters that states were still free to step in with state protections of newly vulnerable waterways if they chose.

“Our rule protects the environment and our waterways while respecting the rights of states and property owners,” Wheeler said. The rollback of the clean-water enforcement “strikes the proper balance between Washington, D.C. and the states,” he said.

Brett Hartl, a government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity conservation advocacy group, called the changes “a sickening gift to polluters.”

The administration’s action “will allow wetlands, streams and rivers across a vast stretch of America to be obliterated with pollution,” Hartl said, contending the rollback would speed extinction for dozens of endangered species. “People and wildlife need clean water to thrive. Destroying half of our nation’s streams and wetlands will be one of Trump’s ugliest legacies.”

The Trump rule narrows the Obama administration’s 2015 definition of what’s a protected body of water and effectively removes safeguards for some waterways that had been put into place with the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The administration says the changes would allow farmers to plow their fields without fear of unintentionally straying over the banks of a federally protected dry creek, bog or ditch. But the government’s own figures show it is real estate developers and those in other nonfarm business sectors that take out the most permits for impinging on wetlands and waterways, and stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief.

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The federal protections keeping polluters and developers out of waterways and wetlands were “one of the most ridiculous” of all regulations, Trump told a farmer convention in 2019.

“It was a total kill on you and other businesses,” Trump said at that time.

The final rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days and become effective 60 days after that. Environmental groups pledged a legal challenge.

Environmental groups said the draft version of the rule released earlier would have lifted federal protections for roughly half of the nation’s wetlands and one-fifth of the millions of miles of waterways. The administration challenges the methods behind that estimate and says it is not possible to come up with a solid figure for how much of the nation’s surface water will be affected.

One of the biggest changes applies to so-called ephemeral waters – creeks and rivers that run only after rainfalls or snow melt. Such streams provide a majority of the water for some dry Western states, including New Mexico.

“That”s a huge rollback from way before Obama, before Reagan,“ said Blan Holman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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State officials in New Mexico have particular concerns given that the Rio Grande, which provides drinking water and irrigation supplies for millions of people in the Southwest and Mexico, depends largely on the types of intermittent streams, creeks and wetlands that could lose protection under the rule draft released earlier. The Rio Grande is one of North America’s longest rivers.

Jen Pelz, the rivers program director with the New Mexico-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians, said the Rio Grande would be hard hit.

“It defies common sense to leave unprotected the arteries of life to the desert Southwest,” Pelz said.

Another key change removes federal protections for wetlands deemed not directly connected to a major waterway In South Dakota, farmer Arlen Foster said Thursday that many farmers believe that wetlands restrictions went too far even before the EPA adopted the 2015 Obama-era rule. And EPA isn’t the only agency that can affect farmers’ use of their land, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 rejected his petition challenging an Agriculture Department system that determined a small tract of his land was a wetland. He had argued that repeated snow melt led to standing water.

“These issues illustrate that … regulations got out of hand and have gone too far,” he said.

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