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Updating the Clean Water Act

The authority to regulate every pond and puddle — that’s how many agricultural interests see proposed changes in the Clean Water Act.

While the act, passed in 1972, has been described as one of the great legislative success stories for helping to clean up some of the worst pollution excesses of previous decades (including a river so badly contaminated that it caught fire), a bill (S.787) that would broaden its scope has caused worries in the farm community.

The sticking point centers on the removal of the requirement that waters subject to federal regulation be “navigable” or connected to navigable waters.

Taking that term out of the legislation “would bring about the largest expansion” of the Clean water Act since it was passed nearly 40 years ago, says Don Parrish, water quality specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

A broad coalition of farm groups, local government organizations, and others have mounted opposition to the bill because they fear it would curtail economic activity and extend the federal regulatory authority to all water, from farm ponds to roadside ditches — and even to the point of absurdity, a puddle of rainwater.

The National Center for Public Policy says the updated legislation would, for the first time ever, grant the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over all wet areas within a state and, for the first time ever, give them authority over all activities affecting those waters, regardless of whether the activity occurs in the water or adds a pollutant.

With unfunded mandates, it says, “this slippery slope takes away power from state and local jurisdictions, shifting control to the federal government for development and use of local land and water resources.”

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, writing on the National Journal Web site, says, “If you live in rural America, look out … for perhaps the biggest bureaucratic power grab in a generation, directed right at America’s heartland.”

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who has recently been elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said at the recent annual legislative conference of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association that while “there is an apparent exemption” for agricultural operations, “I appreciate the view that it could provide the Environmental Protection Agency with an expansion of its authority to regulate all U.S. water, including non-navigable wetlands.”

She said, “We certainly don’t want to give the EPA the broad authority that would allow them onto your farms to regulate ponds, ditches, and gutters.”

Prospects for the legislation are unclear at best, given Congress’ wrangling over health care, the budget, and other top drawer issues.

But given the potential for more onerous regulations on agriculture if the water legislation isn’t clarified, you might want to let your elected representatives know your thoughts on the matter.


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