EPA’s water rule takes bipartisan beating

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to redefine the scope of its authority over the nation’s waters drew a barrage of criticism Wednesday from House lawmakers accusing the agency on trampling on the rights of states and landowners.

Deputy EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe maintained the agecy's draft “Waters of the United States” rule unveiled earlier this year merely clarifies decades-old regulations governing which bodies of water fall under federal jurisdiction and permitting requirements.

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But some Democrats on the House Transportation Committee expressed strong reservations about the plan, and Republicans decried it as a blatant power grab.

“It will dramatically expand the reach of the federal government,” warned Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), the panel’s chairman.

Shuster described the regulation as the latest in a series of “brute force” actions by the Obama administration in pursuit of policy goals and called on his fellow lawmakers to oppose the effort in defense of congressional authority.

“We give it up, they’ll never give it back to us,” he said. “This is a fight we need to have, and we need to win.”

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), the panel’s top Democrat, also came out swinging against the rule, saying the EPA’s contention that it is simply clarifying existing regulations finds “a high level of distrust” in Congress.

“This committee is right to view this proposal with skepticism,” said Rahall, who has made his opposition to EPA regulatory policies a key component of a tough re-election bid this year.

Some fellow Democrats on the panel agreed, while others defended the proposal as providing needed clarity about what waters fall under federal jurisdiction.

The EPA, together with the Army Corps of Engineers, is developing the rule under authority of the Clean Water Act  (CWA) following a series of court decisions that created confusion about the limits of federal authority over smaller bodies of water.

“This complexity has made enforcement of the law difficult in many cases and has increased the amount of time it takes to make jurisdictional determinations under the CWA,” Perciasepe said.

He stressed that the proposal makes clear for the first time several types of water that do not fall under federal jurisdiction, including certain ditches, artificial ponds and lakes and entire floodplains.

Meanwhile, the rule would strengthen the federal government’s hand in protecting the water national supply.

An economic analysis estimated annual benefits — including preservation of waters for wildlife, hunting, groundwater recharging and reduced flooding — at between $388 million to $514 million.

Those benefits far outweigh the projected costs, estimated at between $162 million to $278 million per year.

Perciasepe stressed that the rule was still being crafted and officials would consider the tens of thousands of anticipated public comments, as well as a pending study from a federal science advisory board before finalizing the rule.

The agencies this week announced a three-month extension on the comment period, which now remains open until October.

Perciasepe repeatedly denied assertions that the government was broadening its power to the detriment of businesses.

“Our view is that we’re not expanding to jurisdictions, so I don’t see how it would add to the burden,” he said.

However, numerous witnesses from local government agencies and industry groups called those claims misleading. They argued that the rule is ambiguously written, providing the EPA with substantial latitude and only adding to existing confusion.

“The bottom line is that the expansion of the waters regulated under the Clean Water Act has enormous implications for small business entities that the agencies have not considered, much less explained,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.