Wave of phony charges over new clean water safeguards

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Beat me with the truth, the saying goes, don’t torture me with lies.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must be longing for a little slap of truth these days, after being pummeled with misstatements, wild exaggerations  and, yes, untruths about their latest proposal to keep our tap water clean and our rivers, lakes and beaches safe for swimming and fishing.

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The proposed action is a long overdue clarification of which streams and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act.

After considerable scientific study, the EPA came to the unassailable conclusion that because small, intermittent streams and nearby wetlands feed into larger lakes and rivers that people use for drinking water, fishing and recreation, those waters should also be protected from pollution. And the EPA and the Corps produced some common-sense protections to cover those streams and wetlands.

Almost immediately, opponents started making extreme statements about “government overreach,” “the biggest government land grab ever,” and “an end to farming as you know it,” even though the change simply restores protections to waters that long had been covered.

You’d never know from this overheated rhetoric that the proposal would leave fewer waters protected than was the case under President Reagan or that many tributary streams had been protected against pollution by federal law since William McKinley was president in 1899.

Much of this over-the-top criticism has come from oft-cited polluters, like the mining industry. Yet, some of the most strident charges have come from agribusiness interests. One writer declared, “The 370-page rule may as well be written in farmers’ blood.” The irony is that, thanks to numerous exemptions in the law and the regulations, agriculture is actually the least regulated of any sector. But no doubt some polluters are happy to see the powerful farm lobby, well, carrying water for them.

The comment period for the new proposal will close in October, but some in Congress aren’t waiting. They’re already offering legislation to block the initiative, riding this flood of misinformation. So let’s part the waters of myth and get down to the truth.

Claim: The American Farm Bureau Federation tweets that the proposal “gives the fed gov control over all farming and land use.”

Truth: The clean water safeguards explicitly exempt irrigated areas, farm ponds and dozens of other agricultural practices. They also reduce coverage of “ditches,” a favorite Farm Bureau talking point.

Claim: The Farm Bureau says certain permitting exemptions for agriculture apply only to land that has been continually farmed since 1977.

Truth: This is simply wrong. There is no 1977 trigger date for the exemptions, and they are available to anyone engaged in “normal farming,” which allows for crop rotations, fallow fields and other practices that may vary over time. 

Claim: The Farm Bureau alleges that under this initiative “nearly every drop of water that falls will be regulated by the federal government.”

Truth: The Clean Water Act clearly applies only to “waters,” not all water. That doesn’t change with these new safeguards. The law doesn’t regulate, and never has, the mere use of water, but instead simply makes it illegal to pollute certain bodies of water without proper safeguards.

Claim: The agencies are evading court rulings and congressional intent.

Truth: The clean water proposal restores protections consistent with two Supreme Court decisions, in 2001 and 2006, that called into question just which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act of 1972 but authorized the agencies to protect waters when the science supports it. For nearly 30 years prior, throughout the Nixon, Reagan and Bush I eras, these small streams and wetlands, which feed into drinking water systems serving 117 million Americans, were protected, as Congress intended.

More examples abound. But clearly the truth wouldn’t frighten anyone, so the opposition isn’t sticking to it. The facts are too prosaic: The agencies relied on a large body of scientific studies to propose a modest, common-sense rule that would restore protections to many waters that existed for nearly three decades.

More facts: Small and seasonal streams and wetlands filter pollutants, protect against flooding, and serve as habitat for fish and wildlife. A single acre of wetland can store 1 million to 1.5 million gallons of flood water. This initiative is backed by conservationists, hunters, fishers, people of faith, business leaders and even the National Farmers Union, a family-farm group, which calls it “ag-friendly.”

Congress should not succumb to the hype.  Let the EPA and the Corps do their jobs protecting the safety of America’s waters.

Lehner is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy organization based in New York City.