The Obama administration has proposed rules to determine which waterways and wetlands are regulated by the federal government, a plan praised by anglers and branded a land grab by a Republican senator.
The Environmental Protection Agency said today the proposal will reduce confusion about when bodies of water are declared as federal and require U.S. permits for actions such as discharges or dredging. The proposal is meant to resolve confusion resulting from contradictory court decisions.
“It’s become too difficult to determine what is and what isn’t protected, and that puts wetlands, streams and other water bodies at risk,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a video posted on the agency’s website.
For decades, government officials and businesses have disputed the meaning of one phrase -- the “waters of the United States” -- in a 1972 law to combat water pollution. The proposal today seeks to clear up when a body of water falls under that definition and when it doesn’t.
Opponents said the EPA proposal is more expansion of government powers than a clarification.
“The ‘waters of the U.S.’ rule may be one of the most significant private property grabs in U.S. history,” Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said today in a statement.
The definition has always covered large bodies, such as the Chesapeake Bay or Mississippi River. Smaller streams or wetlands that flow into bays and rivers -- even if only during spring runoff or after a rainstorm -- now will be covered if they can affect the larger body, according to the EPA’s plan.
Decisions by a divided Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006 left unclear the authority of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to require permits for drainage or dredging of those streams or wetlands.
“The proposal will make fishing better, and anglers should support it,” Chris Wood, chief executive officer of Trout Unlimited, said in a statement. “Restoring protections to these waters ensures healthy habitat for fish and a bright future for anglers.”
The EPA will seek comments through late June and issue a final rule after that.
The EPA said it’s clarifying when it has authority over waterways and wetlands, which would benefit both conservationists and the industries, farmers or miner, needing approval. Farmers will receive specific exclusions for normal tilling, harvesting, stormwater discharges and drainage ditches, the agency said.
“The proposed rule is good for businesses because it cuts red tape, reduces costs and streamlines the process of determining what’s covered by the law,” McCarthy told reporters today according to a transcript of her remarks.
The American Farm Bureau, which had led efforts to derail earlier EPA efforts on waterway oversight, is reviewing today’s proposal, said Paul Schlegel, director of energy and environment policy at the Washington-based organization.