Federal regulators are backing away from pollution rules that gave them jurisdiction over irrigation ditches, ranch watering holes and pint-sized lakes in a move that Republicans are cheering and environmental groups fear.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced the shift, which significantly narrows what waters can be defined as "navigable," and thus subject to federal rules. It also lifts federal oversight for most groundwater, many wetlands and some streams, passing those smaller water sources to state and local control.
At a news conference Thursday in Colorado Springs, Mayor John Suthers, Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and EPA bosses praised the new rule, saying it will be bring clarity and certainty to businesses and farmers.
"Today the EPA is ending this over-reach," said regional EPA administrator Gregory Sopkin.
Sopkin said federal regulators will now need "a demonstrable connection" to navigable waters, which in Colorado include major rivers like the Arkansas and its tributaries.
Environmental advocates reacted with alarm at the change.
“The need for clean water is as basic as it is universal," Sierra Club boss Michael Brune said in a statement. "Yet the Trump administration has just given polluters a free pass to contaminate groundwater, destroy streams and wetlands and put our water at risk."
Colorados Democratic Gov. Jared Polis issued a scathing statement about the rule change.
"Our administration will continue to reject attempts by the Trump administration to gut proven ways to protect our health and environment," he said.
Suthers, while praising the new rule, said it doesn't lift many regulations in the city, where most water flows to the Arkansas through Fountain Creek, and is therefore clearly subject to federal regulation.
That means an ongoing legal dispute between Colorado Springs and the EPA over stormwater discharges into Fountain Creek is not going away with the rule change.
The contaminated Widefield aquifer, a major drinking water source in southern El Paso County that was tainted by Air Force firefighting foam, will also stay in the EPA's purview, since its water is tied to Fountain Creek.
But east of town, where there are more cattle than people, the rule change will ease life for ranchers, said Bill Hammerich, who heads the Colorado Livestock Association.
"America's farmers and ranchers need clear rules," Hammerich said at the news conference.
Under the old rule, enacted by the Obama administration in 2015, federal authorities took a broad, and some say nebulous, view of their powers to stop water pollution.
The 2015 rule enforced federal regulation on "intrastate lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, or natural ponds."
The Obama-era rule covered an estimated 60 percent of U.S. waters.
That meant actions that could impact those waters required a federal permit. The rules prompted a string of court battles, and even the Supreme Court called defining which waters were federal "a contentious and difficult task."
The lawsuits meant the Obama-era rules never took full effect, and left the EPA scrambling for a definition of federal waters that would pass judicial muster.
President Donald Trump made rolling back the water regulation a plank in his 2016 campaign as he wooed farmers and ranchers.
But the rollback took years as the EPA wrangled over rules and faced a firestorm from environmental groups.
"The consequences of rollbacks to basic environmental safeguards will be felt for years to come," the Sierra Club's Brune warned.
Suthers said those waters that won't be regulated by the feds will still have plenty of oversight, but from state and local authorities rather than the EPA.
"Anything that happens there will be in the jurisdiction of the state of Colorado," said Suthers, who served as the state's attorney general before winning the city's top job.
Lamborn said having locals regulate more water issues is the best solution.
"If you believe in federalism, then units of government that are closer to the people should regulate those decisions," he said.