Photo above by Eutrophication&hypoxia with Flickr Creative Commons License
By Rebecca Lessner
The Obama administration introduced an addition to the Clean Water Act on Wednesday, despite pushback from farmers across the country and the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted to scrap the rule earlier this month.
“My administration has made historic commitments to clean water, from restoring iconic watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes to preserving more than a thousand miles of rivers and other waters for future generations,” said President Barack Obama in a statement following Wednesday’s release of the final draft. “With today’s rule, we take another step towards protecting the waters that belong to all of us.”
This affects farmers across Maryland and states contributing to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, who say this new rule is a power grab by the EPA.
The Waters of the U.S. rule, commonly called WOTUS, is 297-page document written by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, broadening the scope of “protected waters” to include small streams and wetlands.
“Clean water is critical to the health of every single American,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD. “In Maryland, protecting the Chesapeake Bay is central to the success of our families, our farms, and our economy.”
Originally, the 43-year old Clean Water Act protected “navigable rivers” from pollution. However, environmental advocacy groups stressed the need to protect the source feeding these rivers, as the rule is vague on how far upstream protections can reach.
Now the new rule will encompass smaller streams and water sources under the EPA and the Corps of Engineers protection.
“The new rule is backed by the latest science documenting the connection between wetlands and headwater streams, and downstream waters,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker.
Congress might bar new rule
The U.S. House recently approved legislation to block the rule with a 261-155 vote. Republicans voted unanimously in favor of stopping WOTUS, with 24 out of 188 Democrats joining in.
Still up for a vote is the U.S. Senate version of the House bill blocking the new rule, the Federal Water Quality Protection Act. The Senate version requires the EPA to revise their rule by Dec. 31, 2016.
If the bills fail to be enacted, the WOTUS rule will be implemented as-is, 60 days after being published in the Federal Register.
Advocates for the rule believe it will help provide clean drinking water for 117 million Americans, claiming those against the rule are on the side of “big oil.”
In a conference call Wednesday, representatives from the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council and American Rivers joined U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, D-Md., to address opponents.
“One of the most important points of this rule was to give clarity,” said Cardin, in reference to defining what rivers and streams are now protected. “We know there are going to be opponents who don’t understand the rule and don’t care to understand the rule.”
The opponents during the conference call were repeatedly referred to as the oil companies, who would be hit with expanded restrictions on discarding waste, including BP, Shell and Chevron. Advocates pushed the idea that this is a “common sense” issue with no gray area, adding farmers have no cause to be concerned.
“You’re either for clean water for millions of Americans…or you’re against it,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Too many families have had to think twice about going swimming, going fishing or even drinking from the tap.”
Farmers say it will increase EPA power
However, those who have been working to preserve clean water for their livestock, crops and families are also opposing the new rule.
“Farmers and ranchers know all about the importance of protecting water, and they will continue to put that belief into practice,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “We have helped cut land erosion by more than 50% in just the last 20 years…reduced pesticide use and today use technology to apply just the right amount of fertilizer at just the right time.”
The Farm Bureau believes if the rule is implemented, it would increase EPA’s regulatory power, requiring farmers to obtain costly permits for routine tasks and subjecting farmers to large fines based on the new definition of what they consider drainage from farmland.
“Although EPA has claimed that its rule would simply clarify provisions under the Clean Water Act, the proposal would vastly expand its authority to not only regulate water, but nearly every acre of farmland across the United States,” said Mark O’Neill, director of media and strategic communications for Pennsylvania’s Farm Bureau.
Still, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Water Action and League of Conservation Voters, the rule will not affect farmers as drastically as they believe. Advocates for the rule say it has been “hyped up,” urging citizens to compare claims with reality in the coming days.