Two Arizona tribes, advocacy group join suits over EPA’s clean-water rule rollback

The San Pedro River is one of the many Arizona waterways that would be left virtually unprotected from pollution under a Trump administration plan to rewrite Obama-era rules for clean water, critics say. Several Arizona groups have joined lawsuits to block the new rule. (Photo by Eric Vondy/Creative Commons)

Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works R.D. James, left, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler shake hands in September after signing the final repeal of the Obama-era Water of the United States rule. But their replacement plan has been stalled in courts since. (Photo by Kailey Broussard/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Two Arizona tribes and a Phoenix-based advocacy group joined a pair of lawsuits this week to reverse a Trump administration clean-water rule that critics said would open the “vast majority of Arizona’s waterways” to pollution and degradation.

The suits were filed Monday, the same day a new Environmental Protection Agency rule took effect replacing an Obama-era rule that expanded federal oversight to include seasonal and other waterways.

Critics said the old rule placed a huge burden on farmers and landowners and they unveiled the Trump administration plan in January as a “commonsense” solution.

But the lawsuits – one joined by Mi Familia Vota and the other by the Pascua Yaqui tribe and Tohono O’odham Nation – say the Trump administration’s replacement has virtually no protection, and that Americans “stand to lose their most important resource: clean water.” Mi Familia Vota CEO Hector Sanchez Barba derided the new regulation as the “Dirty Water Rule.”

“The widespread negative community impacts of the Dirty Water Rule are another demonstration that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is not interested in protecting scientifically critical sources of water in our neighborhoods, communities, and states from polluting corporations,” Sanchez Barba said in a statement.

The suits are just the latest efforts to block the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, after a federal district judge in the Northern District of California on Friday rejected a push by 17 states to block implementation of the rule.

Related story

That allowed the rule to take effect except in Colorado: It had pursued its own case and won approval from a federal judge, also on Friday, blocking the Trump administration rule in that state.

The new rule would replace the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. rule, which expanded the types of waterways that were subject to federal clean-water regulations to include not just free-flowing waterways but “ephemeral waters,” that can include waters that may not flow year-round.

Those waterways make up a large portion of Arizona’s water, which is part of the reason local advocates are concerned.

“I can hardly think of a community that wouldn’t be affected,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon chapter. The Sierra Club is a plaintiff on the suit with Mi Familia Vota.

Bahr said the new EPA rule “opened the door” to construction on waterways vulnerable to degradation. She said the upper San Pedro watershed will be hit particularly hard, with nearly 94% of the wetlands unprotected, according to data from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

“That means they fire up the bulldozers,” Bahr said. “It’s huge for Arizona. Water is precious everywhere, especially in a dry state like ours. It’s just really important to give them (waterways) the strongest protections possible.”

Molly Block, EPA assistant deputy associate administrator for policy, said the agency is reviewing the latest lawsuits, but thanked the district judge in California for upholding the navigable waters rule last week.

“EPA and the Army are confident that the new rule provides much-needed regulatory certainty for farmers, landowners, and businesses and protects the Nation’s navigable waters while striking an appropriate balance between federal and state authority over aquatic resources,” Block wrote in the email.

But environmentalists and tribes argue that the new rule defies the Clean Water Act, which is supposed to protect against water pollution.

“The vast majority of Arizona’s waterways will become unprotected from pollution and degradation,” Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter S. Yucupicio said in a news release Monday from Earthjustice.

“It is our responsibility not only to protect our tribal lands but our ancestral homeland,” Yucupicio said. “Water is a gift from our Creator, it brings life to all things. Water is a blessing and we must do everything we can to protect it.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Ellie Borst is an Arizona native who expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Borst is the managing editor for The State Press and will intern at The Arizona Republic in the fall.