With a routine military exercise triggering martial-law conspiracy theories in Texas, it’s not a stretch to see how proposed clarifications to the 1972 federal Clean Water Act have spawned fears of an imperial plot to take over puddles and pastures.
The over-the-top reaction included a viral YouTube video posted by the Missouri Farm Bureau featuring a wedding-gowned farm wife singing “That’s enough! That’s enough” — to a tune from Disney’s “Frozen” — about the big bad bureaucrats who will now be knocking on her wholesome family’s door.
Those of us who depend on clean waterways for drinking water and recreation ought to be saying “That’s enough!” to this alarmist blowback about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “Clean Water Rule.’’ So should Congress, particularly the members who represent Minnesota, a state that not only has abundant water resources but that has long done more than most states to protect lakes, rivers and streams.
Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 muddied the landmark 1972 law’s jurisdiction, making it unclear whether federal water-quality protections applied to critical wetlands and small or intermittent waterways that ultimately flow into waterways supplying drinking water for 117 million Americans. Clarifying that these protections applied — as they had until the rulings — is sensible stewardship.
It’s worth noting that Minnesota’s state water safeguards already have jurisdiction over the waterways that federal policymakers are now trying to protect again. Clarifying the federal law should have minimal impact in Minnesota but yield welcome consistency elsewhere. Despite the rhetoric from farm groups, the Clean Water Act continues to target “point source” pollution,’’ such as that discharged by sewage plants, vs. “nonpoint” sources, such as agricultural runoff.
The proposed Clean Water Rule was released for public comment last year. The deluge of feedback included legitimate criticisms. One of them: The EPA’s outreach to agriculture was late and unfocused.
The comment period also offered reasonable suggestions for improvement. A theme was that the proposed rule’s language needed to be even clearer to help stakeholders better understand changes — or lack of changes. Local and state governments especially need more definitive guidance about stormwater systems. What constitutes a tributary also needs work, as does guidance on ditches and agriculture’s continuing exemptions.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has vowed to heed the feedback as her agency finalizes the rule for its expected release this summer. She should have been given the chance to prove that she listened. Unfortunately, the Republican-led U.S. House voted this week to block the Clean Water Rule’s implementation. The GOP had help from a number of Democrats, many of them from districts dominated by agriculture, such as Minnesota Democrats Tim Walz and Collin Peterson.
It’s not clear if the U.S. Senate will take up the measure, but a national environmental group has targeted Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, for her vote on a nonbinding budget measure dealing with funding for the rule’s implementation. Some environmentalists are worried it could weaken the rule. Klobuchar, in an interview, said she has a strong record on water quality. But she also said that the new rule needs to be workable and that the EPA needs to make changes to ensure that it is.
Changes to make the rule more workable certainly are needed. That doesn’t mean, however, that it should be watered down. California’s drought has painfully proven that water is a finite resource. The nation should be moving forward, not backward, on safeguards.