Navigate carefully in clean-water reform

Much of the debate over amending the 1972 Clean Water Act has been boiled down to a couple of simple, easy-to-comprehend arguments.

“We want to keep our lakes and rivers clean and protect them from pollution,” says one side.

“We don’t want a federal takeover of all of our waters and land management,” declares the other.

Not surprisingly, the issue is more complicated than that. If Congress is careful about new language it adopts for the Clean Water Act, it could alleviate much of the heated debate.

Unfortunately, a bill passed by a Senate Committee in June contains such problematic language that groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Counties have good reason to fear that it would give federal agencies broad authority over not only lakes and rivers, but ponds and drainage ditches. There is also concern that it would allow agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to control activities that might pollute these waters — everything from farming to land development.

Despite passing out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the bill faces substantial opposition, not just from Republicans but many Democrats. Both Colorado senators voiced their opposition to the legislation shortly after it was introduced.

Members of the House of Representatives will get a chance to craft their own bill when a House committee holds a hearing on the Clean Water Act next week. But many critics fear that Democratic leaders in the House will push a measure that is virtually identical to the Senate bill.

Some congressional guidance regarding the Clean Water Act is needed, said Eric Kuhn, general manager for the Colorado River District, which works on water issues for much of the Western Slope. That’s because two Supreme Court decisions in recent years have left confusion about what are considered “navigable” waters under the 1972 law.

Sen. Russ Feingold, sponsor of the Clean Water Restoration Act in the Senate, attempted to resolve the confusion by eliminating the word “navigable” from the description of what the law covers. But critics say that opens up virtually every wet place in the nation to federal oversight, trumping state water laws and local land-use policies.

“We certainly don’t want to give the EPA the broad authority that would allow them onto your farms to regulate ponds, ditches and gutters,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., recently told a farm group.

Congress can avoid that by clearly defining the language of the Clean Water Act, not simply eliminating troublesome words and thereby opening up the possibility of even more confusion and more legal challenges.


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