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Republicans: States, not EPA, can regulate water

Republicans on a Senate Environment and Public Works panel hit an Obama administration clean water rule proposal as an example of federal overreach on Tuesday as they began considering a bill that would undo it. 

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are currently finalizing their “waters of the United States” rule, which would redefine the bodies of water that fall under the EPA's regulatory jurisdiction. 

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Officials from Colorado and Kansas and a handful of Republicans on the committee's fisheries, water and wildlife subcommittee said the rule is too broad and could impinge on the way their states operate. 

Mark Pifher, with the National Water Resources Association, said state and local governments should have a bigger voice in crafting water regulations because they are the ones that will bear the costs of regulating the waterways. Susan Metzger, the assistant secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said her state, too, is concerned that the rule would raise water monitoring costs for regulators. She said states are best suited to regulate waters on their own.

“Allowing for states’ administrative discretion without ubiquitous, counter-productive federal oversight ensures the critical waters of the state, as well as the nation, will be protected,” she said.

Republicans have long criticized the proposed rule an unjust expansion of federal power, warning that it could give the federal government jurisdiction over everything from ditches to drainage ponds. Agriculture groups have opposed the effort as well, saying it would hurt their ability to manage their water and land.

The House passed a GOP-backed bill last week that would repeal the water rule. In the Senate, Republicans have promoted Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Georgia keeps Senate agenda in limbo Spending bill aims to reduce emissions, spur energy development MORE’s (R-Wyo.) bill to withdraw the current rule proposal and issue a new one based around a handful of principles laid out in the bill. The legislation would remove waterways that would be covered under the proposed rule from federal jurisdiction.

“It’s possible to have reasonable regulations to help preserve our waterways while still allowing them to be used as natural resources,” he said Tuesday. 

In a statement, EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia defended the agency's rulemaking, nothing that officials held a series of public meetings on the rule in several states after the proposal came out.

"The input helped us understand the genuine concerns and interests of a wide range of stakeholders and think through options to address them," she said, noting an April blog post from EPA Administrator Gina MCarthy on changes the agency is considering after the meetings.

Democrats on the committee, primarily Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenior Democrat says Hawley, Cruz should step down from Judiciary Hawley, Cruz face rising anger, possible censure This week: Democrats barrel toward Trump impeachment after Capitol attack MORE (D-R.I.) defended both the rule and the federal government’s role in regulating waterways. 

“The idea that as a downstream, sovereign state, I have to depend on what another state does to protect the waters that flow through me, is inconsistent with the entire history of clean water regulation,” he said. “To me the notion that the federal government has no role in protecting a downstream state from upstream pollution is an extraordinary idea.”

Patrick Parenteau, a law professor at the Vermont Law School, said Supreme Court has given the federal government the power to regulate water that flows between states. That conclusion set up a back and forth between Whitehouse and Kansas’ Metzger on the validity of removing the federal government’s role as a water regulator.

“Even where you can foresee that waste and pollution will be washing into the waterways of Kansas, you would still say, no, that is not something that the Clean Water Act should regulate?” Whitehouse asked.

“We feel they are adequately protected by state regulation,” Metzger responded.

“Ok, well,” Whitehouse said. “Good luck with the Supreme Court on that.”

—This post was updated at 2:10 p.m.