U.S. House Republicans on Tuesday voted to block government rules that would clarify which streams, tributaries and wetlands should be protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act.
The rules proposed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have fueled political anger in the country's heartland, becoming a top issue of concern for many farmers and landowners who say there are already too many government regulations affecting their businesses.
The House bill, approved 261-155, would force the EPA to withdraw the rules and further consult with state and local officials before rewriting it. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation.
The EPA says its water rules simply clarify — and don't expand — what smaller bodies of water are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Administrator Gina McCarthy says one out of three Americans gets their drinking water from sources that aren't clearly protected, and the rules would make sure those waters aren't polluted.
Republican Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he believes the proposed EPA and Army Corps rules are "purposely vague" and that they would expand the government's authority over these small bodies of water, despite what the agency says.
"Not all waters need to be subject to federal jurisdiction," Shuster said
EPA officials have acknowledged they may not have written the proposal clearly enough, and said final rules expected in the coming months will better define which waters would fall under the law.
"I want to tell you up front that I wish we had done a better job of rolling out our clean water rule," McCarthy told the National Farmers Union in March.
The agency says the rules are necessary to make clear which waters are regulated under the Clean Water Act in the wake of decades-long uncertainty and two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the issue. The 2001 and 2006 decisions limited regulators' reach but left unclear the scope of authority over some small waterways, like those that flow intermittently.
Democrats said blocking the rules could mean even more uncertainty for landowners who don't know if waters on their land are regulated. They said the GOP bill is premature because the EPA and Army Corps have not yet released the revised, final version of the rules.
"We're being asked to vote on killing something that nobody has read," said Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon.
Across the Capitol, several senators introduced a bill last month that would lay out what bodies of water should be covered under the rules and force the EPA to rewrite them by the end of next year. Sponsors included Democrats who have heard from their constituents on the proposal and said it is aggravating longstanding trust issues between rural areas and the federal government.
"It's the perfect example of the disconnect between Washington and rural areas," said Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly of the rules. Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who also backs the Senate bill, says the water rule is the number one issue she hears about from farmers.
Broadly, the EPA's proposed rules would assert federal regulatory authority over streams, tributaries, wetlands and other flowing waters that significantly affect other protected waters downstream. That means landowners would have to obtain permits for practices or development that may pollute or destroy the waters.
"We're making a targeted effort to protect the waters that matter most," McCarthy told the National Farmers Union audience.
Farm groups are particularly concerned over what they say is an overly broad definition of tributary and whether common farm ditches would be regulated. EPA says it would only regulate farm ditches that are constructed through wetlands or streams and flow year-round.
The EPA has been working to clear up misconceptions, putting to rest rumors that puddles in your back yard would be regulated, for example. Farming practices that are currently exempted from the Clean Water Act — plowing, seeding and minor drainage, among other things — will continue to be exempted.
Many landowners aren't swayed.
Missouri rancher David Luker says he's already spent thousands of dollars trying to comply with the Clean Water Act because several shallow streams run through his farm. "It seems like you can't do anything anymore without some agency being in control or having oversight over what you are doing," Luker says.