New clean water rules: Clarity or hardship?

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today, we offer polar views of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule the government says clarifies which streams and waterways are shielded from development under the Clean Water Act. A Georgia environmentalist says the rule defines what bodies of water already are under federal jurisdiction in the Clean Water Act without restricting farmers and others. Our state agriculture commissioner, meanwhile, worries about the potential impact to Georgia’s leading industry.

EPA rule key to quality of life

By David Kyler

Effective enforcement of environmental laws that protect the public depends on clear, well-understood rules. In the absence of coherent standards, legal controversies subvert regulations, and only lawyers benefit.

Over the past decade, enforcement of the 1972 Clean Water Act has suffered from such a lack of coherence. Confusion over two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, along with patchwork “guidance” issued in 2003 and 2008, provoked uncertainty about protection of tributaries and wetlands. Resulting disputes threatened critical water quality, fisheries, wildlife and public health.

Deficient enforcement standards also threatened drinking-water supplies due to unprotected water sources serving some 117 million Americans. They weakened or eradicated protection of 20 million acres of interconnected wetlands that provide important flood protection and essential wildlife habitat, and endangered water quality in more than 60 percent of all waterways sampled in Georgia.In response, the EPA has proposed a new rule to improve America’s water protection. The rule would:

• Restore regulatory protection to most seasonal and rain-dependent streams as well as wetlands;

• Reduce flooding, filter-out pollution, provide important wildlife habitat, support hunting and fishing, and protect groundwater recharge areas, and

• Improve reliable enforcement of the Clean Water Act by clarifying which resources are protected.

Streams and wetlands are tributaries to rivers and lakes that provide drinking-water sources and recreational areas. So, to ensure public safety, all these interconnected hydrological features must be properly protected. Cumulative damage can cause serious public health risks, including contaminated fish and water supplies.

A year ago, EPA released a “connectivity report” that was used to determine which waters should be regulated. Before its release, the report was reviewed and approved by scientists from public agencies, universities and non-profits. Facts about the interconnections among streams, wetlands, and major waterways were carefully incorporated into the proposed rule.

This new rule will strengthen understanding about resources subject to regulation, consistent with the original Clean Water Act, while reducing costly delays and regulatory conflicts by clarifying how the law is applied.

Even so, farmers, industrialists, developers and others who need water-related EPA permits are raising alarms about the rule, claiming it will hamper activities. Objections to the rule should be carefully examined to expose errors of interpretation and unfounded claims about compliance costs. Experts familiar with the rule say it will actually reduce compliance costs and improve regulatory safeguards.

Opposition to the rule is predictable but unjustified. Contrary to strident protests raised by some who are regulated, the new rule leaves intact existing exemptions for agriculture and forestry. It does not expand regulated waters.

Reliable water protection is essential to our state and nation, increasingly so as growth continues. Because the proposed EPA rule is scientifically based, it strikes a sensible balance by enhancing essential safeguards while reducing regulatory uncertainties.

In coastal Georgia, water quality is imperative to the health of our fisheries and the area’s vibrant eco-tourism industry. Combined, they contribute at least $2 billion annually to our economy and support some 40,000 jobs, about one-fifth of the coastal region’s total.

As development continues throughout the watersheds of the five major rivers flowing to the Atlantic through our region, environmental safeguards will become even more important. The proposed EPA rule will help sustain the diversity and productivity of both ecosystems — including Georgia’s tidal marshes, among the world’s most prolific fishery habitats — and the highly valued activities that depend on them, such as hunting, fishing, water recreation, nature photography and bird-watching.

Georgia’s future depends on reliable water quality, for which cogent, science-based regulations are utterly vital. The underlying logic of the proposed EPA rule is indisputable: All interconnected waters must be uniformly protected.

Readers are urged to learn more about the rule and send comments to EPA at: http://www2.epa.gov/uswaters .

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast.

New water regulations threaten farming

By Gary W. Black

The rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act has caused much debate throughout Georgia’s agricultural industry. While the goal of this revision is to clarify existing rules, I have serious concerns about the consequences it could have for Georgia.

Providing one in seven Georgians with employment and more than $77 billion in total economic impact, agriculture is the leading industry in Georgia. We lead the country in production of poultry, pecans and peanuts. Other commodities of note in Georgia’s agricultural portfolio include cotton, peaches, vegetables, blueberries and the famous Vidalia onion. Thus, Georgia has a vested interest in making sure our producers can manage their operations without unnecessary and burdensome overreach from the federal government.

I find the reach of the EPA under these revised definitions to be a serious threat. Under this proposed rule, EPA jurisdiction will be expanded to include all waters with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters and to the tributaries of these waters. More disturbing, the term “significant nexus” has not previously been defined, so the agency will have the authority to decide how the term is applied.As the head of a regulatory agency, I believe it is our responsibility to enforce the law through rules and regulations, not to create the law through rules and regulations. This expanded authority would give the federal government the ability to dictate how people can use their personal property and farmland around these small, insignificant collections of water. It also would circumvent the will of Congress. The House has passed a bill to rein in the EPA — prohibiting the finalization, adoption and implementation of this very rule. Clearly, EPA is going beyond what Congress wants.

As a farmer who has been given the privilege to represent agriculture throughout the state, I believe this revision will have a direct impact on our farming practices and could keep farmers from using or altering parts of their property, actions that could result in substantial profit loss. This hostile directive threatens to eliminate traditional methods that have been used on our farms for decades.

For example, the expanded rules could result in a denied permit for a producer wanting to build a fence across a ditch or apply pesticides as usual. Increasing the scope of the Clean Water Act would undoubtedly leave our farms at the mercy of EPA and also open the door to environmental activists to pursue civil lawsuits under new interpretations of the rule change. While exemptions exist in the proposed rule, several questions arise as to the protocol for issuing exemptions as well as their long-term certainty.

The economics of the proposed rule are also a concern. In an economic analysis, EPA and the Corps of Engineers anticipate losses under the new rule by the government and regulated entities will be between $162 million to $279 million per year. They determined these financial costs will be associated with activities such as administering additional permits and modifying business operations to meet new standards.

The reporting agencies estimate the benefits of this rule change to be between $318 million and $514 million per year. These benefits, however, are represented by “values of ecosystem services” and “reduced uncertainty concerning where (Clean Water Act) jurisdiction applies.” While the costs will be very real, I find this assessment of benefits extremely vague and severely inflated.

Georgia farmers will tell you there is no resource more vital to farming than water. That fact is why I respectfully, but so adamantly, oppose this rule. Adding another intrusive layer of federal regulation in the path of farm families is unacceptable.

Gary W. Black is Georgia agriculture commissioner.

 


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