War over water: Western Republicans warn Democrats not to advance bill

"In the areas we represent ... there is overwhelming objection to this bill," they said. Here’s the letter.

The Clean Water Act requires that anybody seeking to discharge certain pollutants into waters under federal jurisdiction obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the Clean Water Act applies only to “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water.”

The Clean Water Act now applies to navigable bodies of water. Before the Supreme Court decision, however, federal regulators were able to apply it much more broadly.The CBO said the Feingold bill would give federal regulators their old authority.

Jan Goldman-Carter, wetlands and water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, said the 2001 court decision leaves about 20 million acres of wetlands unprotected by the Clean Water Act. 

“It meant basically you don’t have to have a permit to dump oil in [wetlands] or dredge and fill them,” Goldman-Carter said.

A subsequent ruling further muddied the waters as it were, leaving a situation that cries out for clarity, she said. But legislation is taking "an inordinate amount of time," in the face of a big lobbying effort to keep the law as it now is, Goldman-Carter said.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a version of Feingold’s original bill last summer. Here’s a press release from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee after it approved the bill. 

There is an array of interests that like the new status quo. The Waters Advocacy Coalition includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Home Builders Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.