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Water from the Gunnison Tunnel flows through a canal system June 4, 2013 near Montrose. (William Woody, special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is taking a hard look at the Trump administration’s decision last week to roll back Obama-era clean water regulations as he determines how to respond.

The Democrat says that he might challenge the unwinding of the Waters of the United States Rule if he determines that the Environmental Protection Agency has gutted the policy to the extent that Colorado’s water quality could suffer without sufficient oversight.

The EPA rolled back the 2015 policy — which broadened the kinds of waterways that are subject to federal Clean Water Act regulations — saying it hurt economic development, especially when it came to agriculture. The rule significantly expanded the waterways covered by the Clean Water Act to include small streams and wetlands.

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“The 2015 rule meant that more businesses and landowners across the U.S. would need to obtain a federal permit to exercise control over their own property, a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take months or even years to complete,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said. “It also put more local land-use decisions in the hands of unelected bureaucrats. Many Americans balked at this idea, and rightfully so.”

Weiser said his office worked with lawyers in a host of Colorado departments, including the heads of agriculture, natural resources and public health and environment, earlier this year to urge the EPA not to cut clean water regulations beyond what they were in 2008 as they slashed the Waters of the United States rule. 

In 2008, the EPA issued guidance on which waterways, including wetlands and streams, are covered by the Clean Water Act. The Waters of the United States rule implemented by the Obama administration shored up and expanded that guidance.

Weiser told The Colorado Sun last week that he was still examining the rollback and didn’t yet know exactly how the state would respond. 

“The sort of guideposts are how close to the rules that were adopted to what we recommended,” Weiser said.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks at news conference celebrating the Rocky Mountain Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office’s fifth anniversary on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Farm Bureau celebrated the rollback, saying the state’s farmers and ranchers have been caught in regulatory limbo since the 2015 policies were enacted. Taylor Szilagyi, the group’s director of policy communications, said the rules were complicated and left farmers and ranchers unclear about whether or not they needed permits for their land.

“WOTUS has been an issue that we’ve been pushing against since the very beginning it’s very very difficult and unclear for farmers and ranchers to know what falls under (federal) jurisdiction and what does not,” she said. “If you walk out on your property and don’t know what you can and you can touch, that created a whole bunch of difficulties for you.”

Szilagyi said the bureau wants clean water rules, but that they need to be precise. “Our guys can’t do what we do without good, clean water.”

On the other side of the issue are environmental groups and state agencies, which say the rules are needed to keep the regulatory framework in federal hands as to not burden the state.

“Colorado places the highest priority on the protection of the State’s land, air, and water, and relies on a combination of federal and state regulations to ensure that protection,” Colorado said in its comments to the EPA in April. “The headwaters of Colorado provide a water supply to 19 states and Mexico, providing millions of people with water for drinking, agriculture, industries, and recreation and are critical to the survival of numerous species of concern.”

Environmental groups — like the Natural Resources Defense Council — have already said they will sue.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

The Trump administration has vowed to implement revised clean water policies before the end of the year, and they are expected to be less inclusive than the Obama-era policy. President Donald Trump ordered the Waters of the United States rule repealed and replaced in February 2017.

Weiser’s predecessor, Republican Cynthia Coffman, sued the Obama administration to stop implementation of Waters of the United States rule. Weiser removed Colorado from that challenge when he took office at the beginning of the year.

Weiser has joined or filed more than 10 lawsuits against the Trump administration since taking office in January.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...