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EPA Finalizes New Clean Water Rule Protecting Thousands More Waterways

denverpost.com    5/28/2015 10:45:00 AM    ReadCount:444

The federal government on Wednesday finalized a long-anticipated rule that would ramp up protection against pollution of streams, wetlands and other waterways — winning praise but also igniting opposition.
 
This Clean Water Rule is meant to clarify federal power, particularly in western states such as Colorado, where 68 percent of streams are seasonal ones for which protection has been uncertain.
 
The rule announced by EPA administrator Gina McCarthy won't require new permits, she said, but gives federal officials jurisdiction to crack down on polluters.
 
"This rule will make it easier to identify protected waters," McCarthy said in a conference call with reporters. "This rule will not get in the way of agriculture."
 
But some Colorado farmers and a national coalition of industry groups oppose it. They've asked Congress to intervene and are considering legal challenges.
 
EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulators "are saying that, if somebody decides that what you are doing on your land has an impact on what they call 'waters of the United States,' then the EPA has jurisdiction. If a private citizen complains about it, the EPA has a duty and responsibility to investigate and pursue the case," Colorado Farm Bureau president Don Shawcroft said. "It means the EPA potentially is looking over our shoulder about everything we do — even for small seasonal streams and during heavy rain."
 
EPA officials said 68 percent of streams in Colorado are seasonal or rain-dependent and that these now will be protected as long as they show signs of flowing and affect downstream waters.
 
Environmental groups applauded the Obama administration for reducing legal uncertainties that limited enforcement of clean water laws. Obama is building an environmental legacy that includes efforts to limit oil and gas drilling on millions of acres while promoting it elsewhere and planned limits on carbon emissions from power plants.
 
"Few things are more fundamental to our health than clean water. Nobody should have to worry about pollution when they turn on the tap," American Rivers president Bob Irvin said.
 
The rule is designed to end uncertainty created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that left small streams, headwaters and wetlands in limbo.
 
Those decisions suggested waterways not entirely within one state, creeks that only contain water at certain times of year, and lakes not linked to larger water systems might not qualify as "navigable waters" and might not be covered under the 1972 Clean Water Act. The concern is that pollution of flowing waterways can make its way into sources of drinking water.
 
In Congress, House Republicans voted on May 12 to block the rule.
 
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet on Wednesday didn't take a position. Bennet "looks forward to reviewing this new rule and hopes it will be workable for Colorado," a Bennet spokesman said. "He's heard from farmers and ranchers, sportsmen, water providers and local governments who are all asking for the certainty a balanced rule can provide."
 
Bennet will look for clarity "including the treatment of irrigation ditches," the spokesman said. "He'll also seek additional feedback from Coloradans across the state. Water is a precious resource for Coloradans and Senator Bennet will continue to oppose efforts to weaken the landmark law."
 
While farm bureaus decried EPA overreach, Rocky Farmers Union president Kent Peppler called the rule a common-sense approach to protecting upstream water and downstream producers of food.
 
But 40 miles northeast of Denver in Weld County, farmer Marc Arnusch said agriculture would be better served by relying on local and state authorities to protect water.
 
"To have federal regulation over our water and the way we manage our water can be extremely threatening to us as a farm," Arnusch said. "How is somebody all the way back in Washington D.C. going to know better than a farm here how to protect not only our quantity but our quality of water?
 
"We pride ourselves on doing a very good job of keeping our waters clean. We want to do that at the local and state level. We don't need the bureaucracy of the federal government coming in and changing what is working now."
 
By Bruce Finley 
The Denver Post