WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday turned away a bill that would have forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to repeal and rewrite new rules aimed at controlling pollution in streams, ditches and wetlands.
The “waters of the U.S.” rules aim to clean up remote sources that feed the nation’s rivers and lakes. They are opposed by many farmers and ranchers and widely supported by tourism interests.
A procedural vote to close debate on a bill that effectively gutted the rules failed to gain the needed 60-vote margin. The vote was 57-41 to stop debate.
Minnesota’s senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats, voted against ending debate. The move means new water rules stay in place for now.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., co-sponsored the defeated legislation, which gained 53 Republican and four Democratic votes.
“It’s disappointing my bipartisan bill didn’t move forward today,” Heitkamp said in a statement after the vote. “But I’m going to keep educating senators about the need for our bill and explaining why the concerns of farmers and ranchers must be incorporated into any rule.”
Franken said the proposed law was too drastic.
“In Minnesota, we all support clean lakes, rivers, and streams — including our farmers and ranchers, who are good stewards of the land and water,” Franken said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “I have heard from farmers and some businesses who have concerns about the clean water rule. I’m listening to their concerns and raising them with federal officials. But I believe the legislation that came before the Senate today goes too far by repealing every aspect of this rule.”
Klobuchar said she wanted court action taken to challenge the rule to play out.
“A federal court has recently issued a nationwide stay of the rule and I believe that we should allow the process to work its way through the courts before taking any legislative action,” Klobuchar said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “While the EPA has made some improvements to the final rule, concerns still remain. This is why I recently sought answers from the EPA on questions relating to the rule and I will continue to do so to ensure that any final rule provides consistency and clear guidance for landowners and communities.”
Under the rule, what constitutes “waters of the U.S.” subject to government scrutiny now extends not just to navigable rivers and lakes, but up to 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands. Disturbing those waters and wetlands may require permits and pollution controls.
Farmers and ranchers in the state’s burgeoning agricultural economy worry the new rules will force changes that could cost them productive use of their property.
Tourist officials want to protect the state’s iconic lakes and rivers, which draw millions of visitors each year. Farm and ranch runoff has threatened the quality of many of those bodies of water in recent years.
Both industries, which anchor the state with revenue and jobs, have lobbied Klobuchar and Franken over the rules. So have environmentalists, who favored the EPA’s position, arguing that major waterways cannot improve without addressing remote pollution sources.
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said members of his organization will be disappointed with the Senate vote. But Paap, who grows corn and soybeans in Blue Earth County, said the nation’s agricultural community will fight on through lawsuits if it cannot prevail through legislation.
“We need to ditch the rule,” Paap said. “If we have to do that through the court system, all the way up to the Supreme Court, we will.”