Guest editorial: By going it alone, EPA does damage

The Environmental Protection Agency could set its own mission back for decades if it pushes through the proposed “Waters of the United States” rules, which dissenters say will bring canals and ditches under the same regulatory magnifying glass as natural rivers. Skeptical members of Congress are right to grill EPA brass and do all they can to kill the concept until the Obama administration brings farmers and the states into the drafting process.

While the Obama administration says the draft rules are merely a clarification of the Clean Water Act, an overview of the language reveals a document with much greater destructive potential. Our farms cannot operate if every ditch, every aquifer, every canal is now subject to the full weight of federal environmental oversight.

It’s no secret that the Snake River and the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer put the “magic” in the Magic Valley. One must only look at the region’s non-irrigated landscape to witness the transformative nature of the man-made canals. These are waterways that run through manure and insecticide-laced pastures and fields. These are waterways that collect, by their very nature, substantial nutrients that eventually plunge into the Snake. Between 98 to 99 percent of nutrient loading and pollution in the Snake River is birthed in agricultural fields and dairies, says the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s a waterway that feeds the mighty Columbia River and eventually dumps into the Pacific. Earth is a system with a lot of moving parts. There are global consequences, here. And that’s the problem EPA hopes its rules would address, not only in southern Idaho but throughout the country.

But the proposal would also exponentially expand federal authority over private enterprise. It would feed distaste not only for the agency, but for future right-minded environmental programming. A single victory isn’t worth such wide-ranging damage to future policy. By unilaterally jamming an expansion of its own power down the throats of America’s breadbasket, the EPA would actually do more harm than good.

There’s a place for the states in the regulation of water and it’s imperative that farmers be at the table when new rules are drafted. The congressional push back — from Republicans and rural Democrats alike, including Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch — is about a single, suspect federal agency going solo.

The EPA probably wouldn’t be pushing so hard if the Midwestern and Western states did a better job of self-regulating. Ag is big business and carries substantial political sway. The states and farmers should recognize the long-term effects to far away peoples and ecosystems if they continue to jettison leftovers out to sea or into the water table.

But the feds haven’t done much in the way of consensus building and the importance of relatively clean water isn’t the political herring like climate change. A coalition approach would, in the end, prove less onerous and more effective because buy-in equals compliance.

EPA should scrap the current draft and bring industry, ag, the Republican Association of Governors and other stakeholders to the table and actually have the discussion.