Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency sparked yet another firestorm when it and the Army Corps of Engineers announced pending publication of a proposed rule to clarify what waters in the United States fall under the protection of the Clean Water Act. The rule seeks to address confusion over protections for scores of wetlands and seasonally flowing streams.
Several groups including the National Association of Home Builders and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association promptly took issue with the proposal. Texas rancher and NCBA President Bob McCan called the rule, which will be up for public comment for 90 days this spring, a “step too far” by the EPA and the administration. “This proposal … would require cattlemen like me to obtain costly and burdensome permits to take care of everyday chores like moving cattle across a wet pasture or cleaning out a dugout,” McCan said.
A similar statement by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman decried the rule as a “tremendous new roadblock to ordinary land use activities.” John Youngberg, vice president of governmental affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, questions just how much clarity the proposal truly offers. He says his organization views the proposal as yet another overreach by an agency already “running amok.”
“There’s a fear that they could be in every irrigation ditch and every low spot and every grassy swale in the state if they wanted to be,” Youngberg says.
The EPA issued the proposal partly to clarify regulatory authority over upstream waterbodies that feed into downstream water sources. The agency maintains the authority already exists, but two conflicting U.S. Supreme Court decisions have led to confusion about exactly where the Clean Water Act applies. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy assured members of the international North American Agricultural Journalists this week that the rule would not minimize existing exemptions for farming practices.
“It will not add to or expand the scope of waters historically protected under the Clean [Water] Act,” McCarthy said. “It will not increase regulation of ditches, whether irrigation or drainage.”
Groups like Environment America have countered the ag industry’s backlash by proclaiming the move a vital step in maintaining healthy waterways. EPA spokesperson Lisa McClain-Vanderpool says that here in Montana, more than 230,000 people rely on drinking water systems tied to such streams. Those total approximately 307,000 stream miles in the state, she says.