WASHINGTON – In a move lawmakers and farmers are calling “the biggest land grab in the history of the world,” the Environmental Protection Agency is requesting jurisdiction over all public and private streams in the United States that are “intermittent, seasonal and rain-dependent.”
The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in late March jointly released a proposed rule, Waters of the United States, in an effort to clarify which streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act.
A statement issued by the EPA says “the proposed rule will benefit businesses by increasing efficiency in determining coverage of the Clean Water Act.”
But some lawmakers strongly disagree.
According to congressional budget testimony last week, Waters of the United States would give the EPA authority over streams on private property even when the water beds have been dry, in some cases for hundreds of years.
Calling it “the biggest land grab in the history of the world,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said the “economic impact of that would be profound.”
“A community needing to build on private land that had on it one of these so-called streams that you considered a waterway under the new rule would have to travel thousands, hundreds of miles to D.C., to get approval,” Rogers said.
The congressman argued it “would absolutely freeze economic activity in this country.”
Rogers said the proposal is “proof in and of itself of the mal-intent of this administration toward the private sector.”
When Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, probed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy further about how the new Waters of the United States rule would affect Americans’ civil liberties and ability to conduct business, McCarthy was unable to cite specifics.
She said the rule is currently posted on the EPA website for a 90-day commenting period and the scientific basis to support it has not been completed.
The proposed rule tinkers with the definition of “navigable” waters, which was the central point of litigation in a battle between the Supreme Court and the EPA regarding the Clean Water Act.
“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” McCarthy said.
“Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”
Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, argued the nation’s waters and wetlands “are valuable resources that must be protected today and for future generations.”
“Today’s rulemaking will better protect our aquatic resources, by strengthening the consistency, predictability, and transparency of our jurisdictional determinations,” she said. “The rule’s clarifications will result in a better public service nationwide.”
McCarthy went on to explain that the EPA is working closely with the USDA to further regulate 56 farm practices that are considered exempt under the Clean Water Act.
“We not only took the exemptions, but we developed this interpretive rule that identified 56 farm practices, working with USDA, so that if these farm practices are what you’re doing, you didn’t need to ask a single question about whether they’re exempt,” McCarthy said.
‘Not so friendly’
But lawmakers and farmers express concern that this kind of regulation would allow the EPA in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Energy and the Army to dictate on a never-before-seen scale everything from grazing rights, food production, animal health and the use of energy on private lands.
“We’re hearing from farm groups throughout the United States about uncertainties regarding agricultural exemptions,” Murkowski said. “They say it’s not so farm-friendly as the statements that have been made by your administration.”
When lawmakers questioned McCarthy on the extent of the regulation’s reach, including who would be fined if the rules are violated and where the money would go, McCarthy could not give a clear answer.
She said only that the scientific study on which the proposed rule is based is still under way.