Government

Iowa Congressional Democrats don't sign letter on Waters of the U.S. rules revision

Lawmakers choosing battles, not wanting to anger agriculture groups: political scientists

“Our concern with additional change to WOTUS (Waters of the U.S.) is whatever meager protections there are for water will be further diminished,” says Erin Irish, an associate professor in biology at the University of Iowa. She displays a photograph of the creek on her land in Cedar County. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
“Our concern with additional change to WOTUS (Waters of the U.S.) is whatever meager protections there are for water will be further diminished,” says Erin Irish, an associate professor in biology at the University of Iowa. She displays a photograph of the creek on her land in Cedar County. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa Democrats in Congress did not join the majority of House Democrats in asking for more time for public comment on proposed rules that would roll back federal protection for waterways.

Reps. Abby Finkenauer, Dave Loebsack and Cindy Axne wouldn’t say why they chose not to sign a Feb. 12 letter with 161 other House Democrats, but political science professors said the lawmakers may be trying to avoid the ire of agricultural groups, which like the new rules.

“One thing you often see in, not just in Iowa, but other agricultural states, is a tension between environmental rules and farming,” said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science.

“I can’t speak for the Democrats in Iowa’s Congressional delegation, but my guess is it’s something along the lines about being concerned about ag interests and how it affects Iowa’s economy.”

The House Democrats who signed the Feb. 12 letter asked for an extension of a 60-day comment period on a replacement of the 2015 Clean Water Rule. The letter asks for public comment to last 207 days — the same length of time allowed before approval of the 2015 rules.

Mixed opinions on new rules

The new rules, announced in December, redefine the Waters of the United States, limiting federal protection to “navigable” waterways, their tributaries, adjacent wetlands and some other categories.

The House Democrats’ letter says the proposal would reduce protection for 51 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of streams.

Farmers lauded the revisions, saying the 2015 rules were confusing and gave the government too much power.

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“It pretty much put every acre of land on a farmer’s farm as jurisdictional to the (Environmental Protection Agency) or under the thumb of the federal government,” Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill said in December.

A federal judge in September allowed Iowa to join states that have an injunction halting implementation of the 2015 rule here. The rule had been on hold in 28 states.

Erin Irish, a University of Iowa associate professor of biology, owns a 40-acre pasture in Cedar County that includes native prairie plants she’s been restoring with her husband and an intermittent stream.

“Our concern with additional change to WOTUS (Waters of the U.S.) is whatever meager protections there are for water will be further diminished,” she said Friday.

Irish was researching how to comment on the new proposal when she came across letters from Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate seeking a longer comment period.

“I looked at the names, hoping to find our local representation, and did not find any of them,” she said. “I was very disappointed.”

U.S. Reps respond

“While there were challenges created by the original Waters of the U.S. rule, I am troubled by the Administration’s move to rewrite a rule without an adequate plan to protect the environment and ensure clean water for all Iowans,” Loebsack, who has represented Iowa’s 2nd District since 2007, said in an email last week when asked why he did not sign the letter.

Loebsack said he’d been approached by “many different stakeholders” about the rule and believed the “environmental community is well organized and prepared to make sure the EPA will hear their voices.”

Spokesman Joe Hand said if Loebsack hears from constituents as the April 15 deadline nears that they haven’t had enough time, the Congressman will be “open to looking at a possible extension.”

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Finkenauer, elected in November to serve Iowa’s 1st District, said she supports “collaborative and incentive-based approaches to conservation.” As for the 60-day deadline, she said, “I urge any Iowan who is interested to weigh in to the Federal Register before the April 15 deadline, or express the need through our office for more time to give their feedback.”

Axne, leading Iowa’s 3rd District, said the new Waters of the U.S. rules likely will face legal challenges, taking “months if not years to resolve.”

“Over the next few months, I plan to hear from Iowans in our communities to discuss real solutions that work for us, and stop letting bureaucrats in Washington determine the right way to ensure clean water and create Iowa jobs,” Axne said.

Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the UI, said Iowa’s Congressional Democrats may not want to pick a fight on this issue, particularly when the U.S. Senate and the White House still are in Republican control.

“My guess is extending the comment period is not going to change the rule,” he said. “So then you say, ‘Is it worth the controversy I might engender?’ Those are the type of calculations members of Congress have to make.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Want to comment on Waters of the U.S. rules?

To comment on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s revised definition of the Waters of the United States, go to https://bit.ly/2Isi59E by April 15.

You also may submit comments, identified by Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149, by any of the following methods:

l Email: OW-Docket@epa.gov. Include Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149 in the subject line of the message.

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l Mail: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Docket Center, Office of Water Docket, Mail Code 28221T, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20460.

The federal government may post the comments at regulations.gov, including any personal information provided.

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