POCATELLO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and Congressman Mike Simpson announced a long-anticipated change to environmental regulations Thursday at Holt Arena amid a backdrop of tractors and combines for an agricultural equipment trade show.
The seemingly inconsequential change, a redefinition of the term “Waters of the United States,” has been long sought by agricultural and mining operations, and their mood was celebratory. But the move has conservationists in an uproar because there are indications, based on internal EPA documents, that the change may remove Clean Water Act protections from the majority of wetlands and many streams in the West.
“There’s a long history of water battles here in the West ... and it’s not really surprising given the importance of water to agriculture in this part of the Mountain West. ... My hope is the new rule ends decades of litigation and confusion about what constitutes a Water of the U.S.,” said Chris Hladick, who was appointed EPA Region 10 administrator in 2017.
The federal Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, authorizes the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate the quality of water bodies throughout the U.S. But its scope is limited to the Waters of the United States. So changing the definition of the term means adding or removing streams, wetlands, oceans and lakes from federal regulatory jurisdiction.
During the Obama administration, the EPA proposed a redefinition of the term that farmers worried would mean federal regulation of every ditch and pond on their farms. Simpson fought against the change by placing policy riders into budget bills blocking the change. The rule was withdrawn soon after the election of President Donald Trump.
Under the proposed rule, announced Thursday, certain bodies of water, such as so-called ephemeral streams that only flow under certain conditions and isolated wetlands, would be specifically excluded from federal regulation.
Simpson, who fought against the Obama administration’s proposal from his seat on the Appropriations Committee, said he hoped the new rule would draw clear lines between water bodies subject to federal regulation and those under state or tribal jurisdiction.
“That is why we are here today: to applaud and congratulate the EPA and the Corps for acknowledging the concerns of rural America,” he said.
Nick Blanksma, chairman of the Idaho Potato Commission, also hailed the change.
“Congressman Simpson has long been a champion of Idaho agriculture, and today is no different,” he said.
But the reaction from the environmental community was worlds apart.
“Once again, the Trump administration is ignoring science in favor of corporate profits and threatening human health,” the Idaho Conservation League said in a statement. “The Clean Water Act was created to protect people from harm. This new rule benefits polluters at the expense of communities and public health. More polluted water could now flow over land and underground into waterways where people swim and fish, and where Idahoans get our drinking water. Idaho’s farmers also use this water to irrigate their crops and feed the world.”
The biggest concern is for wetlands. While EPA officials have said it isn’t certain how much wetland would be excluded from the Clean Water Act, E&E News obtained an internal document which indicates that a majority (a bit over 51 percent) of wetland acreage in the U.S. would not meet the criteria for protection under the new rule. The analysis also suggests 18 percent of streams would be excluded from federal pollution limits.
Simpson said he doesn’t believe there has been any systematic effort to map out which water bodies will be affected.
“There will be some areas that were previously defined as wetlands that will probably be under state jurisdiction, and the state has the capability to do that,” Simpson said.