Pair of GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule

Pair of GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule
© Greg Nash

Two Midwest Republican senators are pushing a bill to cement changes made by the Trump administration to an Obama-era rule designed to reduce water pollution, bringing a pet project of the Trump administration to Congress. 

The Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule has long been controversial within the agriculture community, with farmers arguing it gives the federal government far too much power to regulate runoff in small bodies of water that could get contaminated by farm waste.

The bill from Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstWhite House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Iowa) and Mike BraunMichael BraunRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial College Republicans launch campaign calling for GOP to take action on climate change Senate braces for brawl on Trump impeachment rules MORE (R-Ind.) is the latest attempt to put the onus on Congress instead of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to define which waters should be regulated under the law. 

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“The Obama-era WOTUS rule threatened Iowa’s farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses by giving the federal government authority to regulate water on 97 percent of land in our state,” Ernst said in a statement. “President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE and his administration have taken tremendous steps to roll back this far-reaching regulation. ... But it’s the job of Congress to make a new, reasonable definition permanent.”

“This bill would gut the Clean Water Act even worse than the Trump administration’s reckless and wildly unpopular proposal earlier this year," Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement to The Hill. "It’s a recipe for letting polluters around the country off the hook and forcing communities to bear the costs of contaminated waterways and destroyed wetlands. Americans have a right to clean water. We deserve better from members of Congress and the Trump administration than parroting polluters’ bogus claims.”

Though farmers gripe WOTUS goes too far by regulating small bodies of water and seasonal issues, like waterways that result from melting snow, environmentalists say the rule is essential because small waterways eventually flow into larger ones. They say the rule is also necessary to protect drinking water sources from contamination.

WOTUS was established under the Obama administration in 2015 to determine which bodies of water are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act — something Trump’s EPA sought to ease early in the administration. The Clean Water Act was first established in the 1970s to give the federal government authority to regulate pollution discharges into waterways.

The bill proposed by Ernst and Braun would dramatically scale back federal jurisdiction over water. The EPA would no longer have purview over seasonal bodies because the federal law would only apply to those that contain water slightly more than half the year — 185 days — eliminating their review over seasonal waterbodies created by snowmelt or heavy rains.

The 185-day figure comes directly from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the bill also excludes irrigation areas from what would be considered navigable waters

The changes would have implications beyond agriculture. Developers, energy producers and others stand to benefit from weaker regulations on small tributaries.

In June 2017, the EPA first announced it was taking steps to uphold President Trump's campaign promise to repeal and replace the regulation. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called WOTUS “one of the worst examples of federal regulation.”

In early 2018, the EPA under then-Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses EPA didn't conduct required analyses of truck engine rule: internal watchdog Is Big Oil feeling the heat? MORE suspended the WOTUS rule from implementation for two years, promising to rewrite it to “reduce confusion and provide certainty to America's farmers and ranchers.”

EPA's final rule on WOTUS limits regulations of wetlands not connected to larger waterways or riverbeds that only flow after rainfall. 

Braun said clarifying the law is something that should rest with Congress.

“President Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are working hard to fix this atrocious Obama-era rule. But as the Administration has repeatedly noted, it’s Congress job to write laws,” he said in a statement.

The two senators said the goal was to give farmers and other stakeholders clear guidance on what is covered by the law, and much of the bill uses laymen's terms. 

The bill eschews hydrological testing and satellite imagery to map waters, saying an "ordinary person" should be able to identify them with "the naked eye."