Clean Water

The Clean Water Rule


Since 1972 the landmark Clean Water Act (CWA) has protected clean water resources and dramatically improved water quality in communities across the country, protecting them from pollution and toxic dumping. Now this bedrock environmental law is threatened as never before, with proposed debilitating budget cuts and threats to delegitimize the CWA itself.

The most recent attack on clean water protections is the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal the Clean Water Rule (CWR) – a set of regulations established in 2015 that clarifies the CWA’s protection of headwater streams, wetlands, and drinking water sources. These rules were established after years of research and public outreach, and enjoyed broad support from the public and other stakeholders when passed.

Clean Water Rule talking points:

  • Clean water is essential for healthy ecosystems and supports MT’s two largest economic sectors, agriculture and tourism. And outdoor recreation – much of it centered on rivers and streams – now supports a larger portion of our state’s economy than the mining, oil and gas industries combined.
  • The 2015 Clean Water Rule (CWR) extends the Clean Water Act’s protections to tributaries, headwaters and wetlands that are vital to maintain the health of larger downstream waterbodies.
  • The CWR protects water bodies that supply one third of Montana’s drinking water – especially rural communities in central and eastern Montana. These waters are not protected by the CWR’s parent law, the Clean Water Act. Without CWR, they are at risk.
  • As a “headwaters” state with a history of degraded waterways, Montana needs more protections for our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater, not fewer

More about the Clean Water Rule:

The Clean Water Rule was passed in 2015 to clarify unresolved questions about which water resources in the United States are subject to the requirements of the Clean Water Act and fall under EPA’s jurisdiction.

Years of scientific study, agency review, and public input went into the creation of the Rule. Outreach included 400+ meetings with states, small businesses, farmers, academics, miners, energy companies, counties, municipalities, environmental organizations, federal agencies, and others. The EPA received more than 1 million public comments on the rule, the vast majority of which (87%) supported it.

In the end, the Rule was built around recognition of:

  • the key role headwaters and tributary streams play in maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of downstream waters;
  • the fundamental importance of wetlands and open waters to protecting clean water and maintaining the ecological integrity of our watersheds;
  • the vital importance of clean water to a strong and healthy economy

As such, the CWR includes strong protections for headwaters and tributary streams. In fact, the Rule protects 60% of the streams in the United States, along with 20 million acres of vitally important wetlands. In fact, one in three Americans get their drinking water from sources that the original Clean Water Act did not protect, but which did receive protections under the CWR.

The Rule also recognizes the water use needs of agricultural producers, and includes a number of exclusions/exemptions that protect ranchers and eliminates confusion for landowners, municipalities, and small businesses.

Still, many misperceptions persist about the CWR and are cited in current attempts to repeal it. Popular myths are that it regulates ditches and puddles, constitutes an EPA land grab, regulates where livestock are allowed to walk, and triggers excessive lawsuits. We tackle each of these myths below:

Myth v. Reality

Ditches & Puddles? 

The CWR does not expand the regulation of ditches or stock ponds. In fact, it actually includes exemptions for ditches that did not exist under existing guidance. The 2015 Rule does not regulate puddles.

Cows walking on water?

Farmers do not need a CWA permit to allow livestock to walk across a stream or wetland. The 2015 Clean Water Rule places no additional permitting requirements on agriculture.

Land Grab?

The EPA has always had broad statutory authority to enact the rules necessary to achieve the Clean Water Act’s goal of maintaining and improving water quality. The 2015 CWR reduced the number of water sources potentially subject to EPA jurisdiction, and clarified previous exemptions to the Clean Water Act.

More Lawsuits?

Ephemeral and intermittent streams have been covered under the Clean Water Act since the 1970s. The CWR clarifies the extent of EPA’s jurisdiction and provides certainty as to which categories of waters are covered and which are exempt. More clarification + less confusion = fewer lawsuits.


Rules don’t solve every problem. But the Clean Water Rule, as a clarification of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, provides critically important protections for some of our most important water resources. It protects people, communities, and fish and wildlife from pollution, and prevents toxic dumping in some of our most vulnerable creeks and streams.

We can’t risk contaminating our most precious natural resource. And as threats to our waterways continue to grow, we need rock-solid protections in place to ensure that the springs, headwater streams, wetlands, and tributaries that help define western Montana are clean, safe, and secure for the long term.

What’s at risk in western Montana?

The Clean Water Rule helps protect  innumerable creeks, streams, and tributaries in western Montana that had been in limbo, or were not protected at all, under the Clean Water Act.

This is because protections for so-called “intermittent reaches,” or portions of streams that do not flow year-round, were unclear under the CWA. The 2015 Clean Water Rule helped clarify where the Clean Water Act applies.

Biologists have long known that intermittent stream reaches are critical for native fish species – providing spawning habitat, migration corridors, and protection from predators as well as dangerously warm stream temperatures.

In western Montana, such streams include familiar waterways used by countless anglers, hunters, and others, including: Petty Creek, Fish Creek, Trout Creek, Monture Creek, Dunham Creek, North Fork of the Blackfoot River, Dry Cottonwood Creek (one of our “Eight Gr8 streams” in the Upper Clark Fork), and many others.