Angry over reach of EPA water rules, farmers urge lawmakers to block them

Government rules to clarify which streams, tributaries and wetlands should be protected from development and pollution are fueling political anger in the country's heartland.

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The Environmental Protection Agency rules proposed last year have become a top issue of concern for many farmers and landowners who say there are already too many government regulations that affect their businesses.

The EPA says its water rules simply clarify — and don't expand — what smaller bodies of water are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Some lawmakers say it's overreach that is aggravating longstanding trust issues between rural areas and the federal government.

In response to that frustration, the House will consider a bill Tuesday that would withdraw the rule and force the EPA to further consult with state and local officials before rewriting it. The rule would "trample on private property rights and hold back our economy," read a memo sent out by the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., before the House floor debate. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill last month that would force the EPA to rewrite the rules by the end of next year.

"We've got a whole lot of pent-up frustration and concern because it seems like every time they turn around, there is a new set of regulations for farmers to be concerned about," says North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who is backing the Senate bill. Heitkamp, narrowly elected in a competitive Senate race in 2012, says it's the number one issue she hears about from farmers.

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"It's the perfect example of the disconnect between Washington and rural areas," says Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, another Democrat backing the legislation.

Lawmakers say they believe that the proposed "waters of the United States" would expand the government's reach over these smaller bodies of water.

Under fire, EPA officials have acknowledged they may not have written the proposal clearly enough, and said final rules expected in the coming months will better define which waters would fall under the law.

"I want to tell you up front that I wish we had done a better job of rolling out our clean water rule," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the National Farm Bureau Federation, a staunch opponent, in March.

Still, the agency argues the rules are necessary to make clear which waters are regulated in the wake of decades-long uncertainty and two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the issue. The 2001 and 2006 decisions limited regulators' reach but left unclear the scope of authority over some small waterways, like those that flow intermittently.

Broadly, the EPA's proposed rules would assert federal regulatory authority over streams, tributaries, wetlands and other flowing waters that significantly affect other protected waters downstream. That means some operations that wanted to dump pollutants into those waters or develop around them would have to get a federal permit.

McCarthy says one out of three Americans gets their drinking water from sources that aren't clearly protected. "We're making a targeted effort to protect the waters that matter most," she told the Farm Bureau audience.

Farm groups are particularly concerned over the definition of tributary and whether common farm ditches would be regulated. EPA says it would only regulate farm ditches that are constructed through wetlands or streams and flow year-round.

The EPA has been working to clear up misconceptions, putting to rest rumors that puddles in your back yard would be regulated, for example. Farming practices that are currently exempted from the Clean Water Act — plowing, seeding and minor drainage, among other things — will continue to be exempted.

Many farmers aren't swayed.

Missouri rancher David Luker says he's already spent thousands of dollars trying to comply with the Clean Water Act because several shallow streams run through his farm. "It seems like you can't do anything anymore without some agency being in control or having oversight over what you are doing," Luker says.

Supporters of the law say blocking the rules could mean even more confusion. John Divine of the Natural Resources Defense Council urged patience while the final rule is crafted.

"I think it's important that folks see what's in the final package before condemning it," Divine said.

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Find Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick