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California, 19 other states sue Trump administration over new water rules

President Trump signing an order in April 2019
President Trump holds up his executive order on energy and infrastructure after signing it in April 2019.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

California joined 19 other states and the District of Columbia sued the Trump administration Tuesday, alleging that new federal rules undermine their ability to protect rivers, lakes and streams within their borders.

Attorneys general for the 20 states say that new final rules issued last week by the Environmental Protection Agency alter a practice dating back more than 30 years that gives state governments the authority to review, block or put conditions on federally permitted water projects.

President Trump in April 2019 issued an executive order directing the change, which critics said could make it harder for states to block pipelines and other projects over concerns that they could impair water quality.

“The Trump administration wants to clear the deck for fossil fuel infrastructure,” California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said in announcing the joint lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in San Francisco.

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Becerra added: “By reducing the scope and time [for review], they make it very difficult for states to fully protect the rights that they have to protect the water that is in their boundaries.”

He said the water regulation changes would limit states’ reviews of natural gas and oil pipelines, hydroelectric projects, housing and commercial land development, and wastewater treatment plants.

A court has temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to pump more water to the agricultural Central Valley, which critics say would threaten endangered species and salmon runs

The EPA declined to comment on pending litigation, but said in a statement that it acted because its water-quality certification regulations were nearly 50 years old.

The revision “reflects the first comprehensive analysis of the text, structure and legislative history” of that portion of the Clean Water Act, the agency’s statement said. “As a result, the agency’s final rule increases the transparency and efficiency of the ... certification process in order to promote the timely review of infrastructure projects while continuing to ensure that Americans have clean water for drinking and recreation.”

The lawsuit, led by California, New York and Washington state, claims that the regulation changes violate the federal Clean Water Act and decades of legal decisions and administrative precedent. It alleges that the EPA did not follow proper procedures in changing the regulations.

Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark Herring said in a statement that the new final rule “unlawfully restricts the ability of states like Virginia to even review, let alone impose important conditions and environmental protections on, projects that could cause harm.”

A 1,223-page document, obtained by The Times, details how endangered California salmon could be imperiled by Trump administration changes to state water operations.

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The rule applies to all projects requiring federal approval that may result in the polluting of waterways. States were required to certify that the projects satisfied state law and water-quality standards.

Doug Obegi, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the rule “eviscerates” states’ ability to influence hundreds of projects each year.

He said that states might still be able to prohibit projects from polluting rivers, for example, but under the changes could no longer require minimum stream flows below federal dams and reservoirs “so we actually have a river.”

The changes are among several steps the Trump administration has taken to roll back the Clean Water Act, including ending federal protection in January for many of the nation’s millions of miles of streams, wetlands and arroyos. That change narrowed the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection.

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The other participating states in Tuesday’s lawsuit are Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.


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