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Ditching the Myths about Clean Water Rules

Wiki Commons

The public-comment period on a new rule about water ended two weeks ago, but the uproar over a “government takeover” of ditches remains.

It’s reminiscent of scare tactics about death panels, secret plans to confiscate guns, and programs to recruit people to gay lifestyles. In a rural term: hogwash.

Local, state and federal officials have asked for a rule for years to better define the Clean Water Act’s “waters of the United States,” setting boundaries between wetlands, uplands and flowing waters.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule was proposed in response to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that left enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA) so vague as to make prosecution of polluters difficult because Congress hasn’t acted. The rulings – 2001’s “Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers” and 2006’s “Rapanos v. United States” – cast doubt on what was regulated.

The rule was envisioned as assuring farmers that no new regulations would affect them. Water covered by the rule, based on peer-reviewed scientific studies linking streams, wetlands and downstream waters, had been protected since the Reagan administration, ensuring safe water for 117 million Americans.

Then weird attacks started, like from Iowa State Sen. Joni Ernst, campaigning for the U.S. Senate. She said, “Before [farmers] put in a terrace, before they planted a tree, they would have to go to the federal government and basically ask for permission,” a statement that the Cedar Rapids Gazette “Fact Checker” pronounced false.

The Farm Bureau (which the Southwest Florida Water Management District calls “an insurance company turned Big Ag advocate”) contends that the rule would expand EPA’s jurisdiction over ordinary landscape features that might hold water, labeling the rule as government taking over all farming and land use –“puddles, ponds, ditches … virtually all water,” plus “weed control [and] fertilizer applications … even rainwater would be regulated.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said such claims are “silly. [The rule] regulates the pollution and destruction of U.S. waters, not … land [and it] excludes groundwater.”

Vicki Tschinkel, former Secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, added, “We are puzzled by the fierce reaction against something that only seeks to provide needed clarity to the Clean Water Act. Clarity of these regulations is desperately needed to protect … waters and to stop endless litigation.”

The proposed rule, issued April 21, doesn’t increase regulations affecting farming or other activities, said McCarthy, adding, “Every exemption that was in the prior rule remains.”

In fact, “the rule protects fewer waters than prior to the Supreme Court cases,” the EPA has repeatedly explained in some 350 public meetings.

Bill Knight

The Department of Agriculture joined the EPA and the Corps of Engineers to define 56 conservation and farming practice as exempt, and concluded that the rule would increase CWA jurisdiction over 1,500 acres – nationwide. Some conservationists think it doesn’t go far enough. Ducks Unlimited is concerned that many Dakota wetlands would remain unprotected. Jon Devine, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said, “Agriculture is the least regulated sector of discharges.” Calling Farm Bureau’s statements “willful misrepresentation,” Devine said, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. They talk like the proposal is a radical departure from normal practice, when in truth it would restore safeguards for long-protected waterways and would protect fewer water bodies than the law had traditionally covered.”

Nevertheless, mouthpieces for AgriBusiness and Obama Haters like U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to kill the rule – and keep the CWA as muddy as possible – and 34 mostly rural-district Democrats joined Republicans in passing the measure, but the Senate hasn’t acted on it.

A conspiracy to wrest control of ditches and waterways? Why? The real plot is attacking the Obama administration and weakening existing regulations. The Farm Bureau is being used by extremist politicians as another weapon to strike Obama, or by corporate interests that want fewer regulations to operate (or pollute).

Too many Republicans just don’t trust the administration. Of anything. And the Farm Bureau doesn’t trust the government (which, ironically, provides subsidies to help producers).

EPA has a “Ditch the Myth” site to set the story straight. But maybe the EPA should just announce its “surrender” and agree (which the rule does anyway), and implement it.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.

Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly columns are archived at