A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Thursday to force the Obama administration to try again in its regulatory effort to define the federal government’s power over streams, wetlands and other waterways.
The legislative effort goes further than previous Republican-led attempts to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Waters of the United States rule, giving the agency specific instructions and a deadline for how it should write a new rule.
“The legislation basically gives the EPA the direction that I believe it needs to write a reasonable rule that will truly protect America’s navigable waterways and adjacent wetlands,” Barrasso said at a Thursday news conference unveiling the bill.
“By striking the right balance, we’re going to keep our waterways safe and pristine, and allow them to be used as natural resources,” he said.
Barrasso was joined by Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampBusiness groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Sanders supporter to run against red-state Democrat GOP lays out regulatory reform wish list MORE (D-N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyGOP rep to potential Senate rival: Don't run Trump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Senate Dems target potential GOP candidates over ObamaCare repeal MORE (D-Ind.).
A staffer for Heitkamp said the bill was the result of months of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
The EPA’s rule, which it plans to make final this spring, aims to establish the agency’s authority after two Supreme Court cases made it unclear which waterways are covered. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is also responsible for the Clean Water Act, is working with the EPA.
While the agencies say the rule would not significantly add to their jurisdiction, Republicans, some Democrats, farmers and other businesses have called it a massive land grab that would include ditches, puddles, isolated ponds and dry creek beds.
Landowners could have to get permits for a variety of activities if their waters are under EPA authority.
“There is not one single federal regulation in the entire country that has caused more concern in the state of North Dakota than this Waters of the United States proposed regulation,” Heitkamp said. “There is incredible uncertainty out there.”
The legislation acknowledges that although the Clean Water Act instructs the federal government to protect “navigable” waters, its authority has to extend to tributary streams, wetlands and other areas.
But the senators accused the EPA of trying to protect wildlife habitats with its rule, along with other provisions that have no connection to stopping water pollution.
“Instead of focusing on water pollution, they claim they have jurisdiction through providing habitat to bird, animals and insects,” Inhofe said.
An aide to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Inhofe chairs, said the sponsors did not estimate how much more or less water would be covered under the bill because it is not a comprehensive plan.
It also requires the EPA to consult with certain stakeholders and local officials.
“This is something that both parties can get behind, by focusing on common-sense principles to shape a final rule and requiring straightforward procedures the EPA skipped the first time,” Donnelly said.
“It isn’t designed to destroy or delay the rule indefinitely,” he said. “In fact, our bill asks the EPA not to put off this important work, to complete it by Dec. 31, 2016.”
EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia declined to comment on the bill.
Green groups, though, immediately blasted the proposal and said it would be a major step backward in protecting water.
“These precious bodies of water filter pollution, prevent flooding, feed prized fishing grounds and help supply the drinking water systems of one in three Americans,” Jon Devine, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Such critical resources need more protection — not less.
Devine also accused the senators of prematurely passing judgment on the EPA’s rule, because it hasn’t been released publicly yet.
“It is simply unacceptable that certain members of Congress are trying to stop the EPA from issuing science-based protections for our water,” said Madeleine Foote, a lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters.
“Americans have shown that clean water is one of their top environmental concerns and that they trust the EPA, not Congress, to protect the health of their families.”
Updated at 12:38 p.m.