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Cheers, jeers greet new water rule

Regulation to strengthen Clean Water Act sets up clash with farmers

Liz Martin/The Gazette

One in three Americans get drinking water from streams and tributaries that lacked clear protection under the Clean Water Act, regulators say. The Iowa River and tributaries, above, wind through the Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area in a 2012 photo.
Liz Martin/The Gazette One in three Americans get drinking water from streams and tributaries that lacked clear protection under the Clean Water Act, regulators say. The Iowa River and tributaries, above, wind through the Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area in a 2012 photo.

WASHINGTON — The White House finalized a rule Wednesday intended to strengthen the Clean Water Act, but quickly set up a clash with the agriculture industry.

The rule is designed to help federal officials clarify and simplify which bodies of water fall under control of the Clean Water Act, the pivotal 1972 environmental law.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed the rule last year and were deluged with comments — more than 1 million in all. Now the revision takes effect in 60 days.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Wednesday’s action was not a power grab by federal officials, despite persistent claims to the contrary. She said it was a necessary action to keep the nation’s waters clean and its drinking supplies clear.

Likewise, Brian Deese, a White House senior adviser, said there was misinformation about what the rule does and does not do. “But what becomes clear,” he said, “ ... is that the only people with reason to oppose the rule are polluters who knowingly threaten our clean water.”

Known initially as the “Waters of the United States” rule, it was first out in draft form in early 2014. Republicans, farmers, developers and other business interests opposed it, calling it a massive overreach.

Supporters, such as the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, called the rule “a significant fix” for tens of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of streams that contribute to the drinking water for 117 million Americans.

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In March, Des Moines Water Works sued the boards of supervisors of the mostly rural Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties, asserting that drainage districts within their borders violate the Clean Water Act. The suit alleges the counties are not doing enough to reduce nitrates in waters that runs into the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers and their tributaries.

Bill Stowe, chief executive officer of the Des Moines Water Works, called the new rule an incremental step in the right direction.

“I think it provides important clarity,” Stowe said. “We don’t think that in and of itself it is a cure, but it does provide greater clarification of the federal government’s jurisdictional interests in seasonal waterways, so we are supportive of it.”

The rule is designed to clarify the kinds of waterways that are subject to Clean Water Act protection and therefore the permits required for building on or polluting into a protected waterway. For example, certain kinds of land formations that are wet only part of the year could be brought under Clean Water Act jurisdiction.

The EPA said the affected areas would be relatively small in number. Opponents said that the agency is underestimating the impact, and that the rule could expose farmers and others to major hassles as they seek to use or build on lands not now covered.

“The rule could result in significant red tape and expense for Iowa farmers as they make routine decisions about how best to use their land, even ironically hampering projects to improve water quality,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Grassley is a co-sponsor of a bill in the Senate to require that the rule be completely revised. He also is a co-sponsor of legislation to codify the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction into law, rather than regulation.

A bill to gut the rule has already passed the House, but President Barack Obama could veto any Clean Water legislation.

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Bill Northey, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said the EPA should have held another comment period on the revised rule to allow additional comments.

“It is very important that this be done correctly,” Northey said. “We want to encourage farmers to do additional conservation work on their farms, not stand in their way. “

George C. Ford of The Gazette and the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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