Staff Columnist

A scorched-earth war on water

The Mississippi River flows through Davenport on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Mississippi River flows through Davenport on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Soon, we may not have the dreaded Obama WOTUS to kick around anymore. And its public enemies, led by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, are dancing in the end zone.

WOTUS stands for Waters of the U.S., which the federal Clean Water Act is supposed to protect. But the act is vague, so the Obama administration wrote rules in 2015 clarifying what waters are protected. It included not only navigable rivers and major tributaries but also many wetlands and other smaller, even intermittent, streams that aren’t directly connected to larger waterways but have an impact on their water quality.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, along with developers, business interests and others carpet bombed the WOTUS proposal with alarmist claims from day one. They found an ally in President Donald Trump, who is always eager to dynamite any and all Obama-era accomplishments. He called it a “destructive, horrible rule.” WOTUS bashing became a big applause line at rallies.

They claimed the rules would cost thousands of jobs, strangle development, close businesses and spawn an army of federal regulators to monitor every puddle in America. WOTUS-spawned rules would cause weight gain, flu-like symptoms and surely cancel Christmas. OK, not sure about those last three.

And they had Ernst, who often claimed regulations would blanket Iowa like a deep bureaucratic blizzard.

“Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government,” Ernst told reporters last year as the Trump administration rolled out a far more narrow definition of protected waters.

This past week, Ernst, celebrating its planned repeal, repeated one of her favorite claims about Obama WOTUS.

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“WOTUS as written by the Obama administration would have covered 97 percent of the land in Iowa,” Ernst said in a video released by her office. Her spokesman said the claim comes from an August 2015 analysis paid for by the Farm Bureau.

“It is absolutely not correct,” said Silvia Secchi, an associate professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa. “And it’s the kind of fearmongering we’ve been hearing.”

Secchi is a natural resources economist, teaches courses in environmental policy and formerly worked in the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University.

“The Waters of the United States rules preserved all of the exceptions for agriculture. So agriculture was excluded from all the Clean Water Act regulatory approaches. The rules maintained those exclusions. So for Sen. Ernst to say that, is just really … ridiculous. It’s not true,” Secchi said.

Secchi said the Obama-era definition could have had an effect on developers, and potentially confined animal feeding operations which are considered “point sources” of pollution regulated by the Clean Water Act. But tire tracks down on the farm? Not so much.

But why would Ernst and others raise all this dubious ruckus?

“This is how everything is now,” Secchi said. “Anything that can potentially affect agriculture, they go like full-throttle, 1,000-percent objection. It doesn’t matter how little the impact. It doesn’t matter if there’s social benefits. It doesn’t matter if you should look at things with nuance.

“They’re afraid of what they call regulatory creep. It’s paralyzing any environmental action in the United States,” Secchi said.

And it’s great politics. Nothing gets red state voters revved up quite like conjuring up hordes of federal regulators a candidate can vow to slay with the terrible swift sword of freedom. The days of sitting down and finding a hard-won science-based compromise that might have resulted in some progress on protecting thousands of wetlands and improving water quality have been washed away in a wave of hollow partisan vitriol. It’s war, and water is losing.

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The American Farm Bureau has spent more than $15 million on lobbying since 2015, according to opensecrets.org. It was spent to win, not find middle ground.

Ernst insists scrapping the 2015 rules will bring “clarity.” Not to our water, but for business and developers. Draining or filling a wetland to build condos or a strip mall will be a snap.

But surely the states will step in to protect water. Just like in Iowa, where the governor’s office, Statehouse, agriculture department and Environmental Protection Commission are filled to the brim with agricultural interests eager to change the subject.

“This used to be bipartisan. Now it’s so ideological,” Secchi said, pointing to environmental record of George H.W. Bush and other moderate Republicans. “There’s so little information coming from science and history. It’s pretty depressing.”

What’s also depressing is WOTUS is just one of Trump’s environmental greatest hits. There’s the scrapping of the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions, and the attack on California’s vehicle emission standards, which pushed the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency. Don’t forget kneecapping the Endangered Species Act and the push to get rid of pesky federal scientists by any means necessary.

Congress is hapless, toothless and gridlocked. The big money is backing America’s pollution coalition. The president thinks windmills and homeless people are our real environmental foes.

“The only thing that’s going to move the needle now is lawsuits,” Secchi said.

Well, at least lawyers will find work. And our tire tracks will be filled with freedom.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman @thegazette.com

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