U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said Wednesday that House members have taken steps to stop “yet another regulatory overreach by a federal agency out of control, threatening jobs, threatening private property rights, threatening rural communities and threatening our way of life.”
The Republican-controlled chamber approved the Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act on a bipartisan vote. The measure passed Sept. 9 by a 262-152 margin, with 35 Democrats joining 227 Republicans in support.
“Ranchers in eastern Oregon wonder about their stock ponds. Wheat growers in the Columbia Basin worry about an intermittent stream adjacent to a field. Fruit growers in Hood River and onion growers in Ontario are concerned about their irrigation ditches,” said Walden during a speech on the House floor prior to the vote.
He represents Oregon’s Second Congressional District, which encompasses Wasco, Hood River and 18 other counties. He was joined in sponsorship of the bill by U.S. Rep. Kurt Shrader, a Democrat representing the fifth district.
Maupin rancher Keith Nantz is president of the North Central Livestock Association, which represents both Sherman and Wasco County ranchers. He said Walden and other House members are owed a debt of gratitude by the agriculture community for their efforts.
“I think it’s a great move, we need more checks and balances so our democratic form of government works like it’s supposed to,” he said. “I hesitate to get too excited, though, because the Senate hasn’t been moving these things along.”
Walden is hopeful that, although many House bills die in the Democrat-controlled Senate, this one will be approved because of its bipartisan support.
Mike Freese, an attorney who serves as director of regulatory affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau, joins Walden in that hope.
“The House took an important step in passing legislation to pull back overzealous federal agencies,” he said. “Farmers and ranchers are great stewards of the land and the burdens of federal overreach only make providing food and fiber for this country more difficult.”
At issue is the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to expand the definition of “Waters of the U.S.” in the Clean Water Act. The agency is seeking jurisdiction over waters that join tributaries, adjacent waters or those that connect to waterways already under federal jurisdiction.
In May, members of Environment Oregon gathered signatures in The Dalles in support of the proposed rule. At that time, Rikki Seguin, a conservation advocate for the Portland-based organization, said two Supreme Court decisions had left “53 percent of Oregon’s waterways unprotected” by federal regulations, although some were protected by state rules.
“Oregon’s waters are one of the things that make this such a great place to live,” said Charlotte Bromley, campaign organizer of the clean water campaign for the conservation group. “The fact that two of Oregon’s delegation voted against clean drinking water is disgusting.”
She said Walden and Schrader’s votes, if successful, will allow polluters, such as agri-business and oil companies, to continue dumping toxins into waterways. She said Environment Oregon has gathered 21,000 signatures in support of the EPA rule and the work toward that end continues on behalf of all state citizens.
“This rule is the best chance we have to restore protection to Oregon’s waters,” she said.
Gina McCarthy, administrator of the agency, contends the intent of the proposed rule, developed in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is to clarify and further define the intent of the act.
The agency released its 370-page draft proposal in April and, due to the outcry from agriculture organizations, extended the public comment period until Oct. 20. The definition change is based on a draft report by EPA’s Office of Research and Development detailing the connectivity and influences of streams and wetlands on downland waters.
McCarthy said agricultural concerns that the rule will allow EPA to regulate activities around irrigation ditches are unfounded. In recent public statements, she pointed out that an exemption contained in the proposal says that ditches constructed through dry lands and those that don’t have water year-round will not be regulated.
The proposed rule defines all ditches with a bed, bank and high water line as tributaries, unless otherwise exempt. Freese said the exemption quoted by McCarthy is so narrow that few ditches will qualify.
Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a recent Chronicle interview that the exemption is “mythical.” He said EPA will have authority anywhere a channel begins and that blurs the distinction between regulating water and land use.
In essence, he said every low spot would be subject to regulation, which would make expensive permits necessary for road construction, home building and even moving grass in a ditch.
“EPA says this new rule was meant to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act, but I’ve heard across my district how the vague language in this proposal actually creates more uncertainty, not less,” Walden testified this week. “For our farmers, ranchers, Oregonians and others that utilize our water resources, it’s a huge threat.”
Parrish said scientists compiling EPA’s report were only asked to determine if all water is connected.
“Basically, they were asked, ‘Does water flow downhill?” he said in an Aug. 21 Chronicle story.
Walden told House members Tuesday that EPA’s proposal was based on “faulty science” and should be withdrawn.
“It underestimates the tremendous harm it poses to our rural economies,” he said. “This regulatory overreach by EPA blatantly ignores Congress’ repeated rejection of similar legislative efforts to expend jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. Of course, we shouldn’t be that surprised, the EPA has tried this before, and they have been rebuked by the Supreme Court. Twice in fact, in 2001 and 2006.”