The backlash from agricultural and rural groups in Kansas and elsewhere in response to proposed changes in federal rules regarding water protection has been strong enough to draw Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to the heartland to defend the move.
McCarthy – who was scheduled to tour a farm in central Missouri on Wednesday and speak to the Kansas City Agribusiness Council luncheon on Thursday – calls the rewrite a “clarification” of rules regarding which bodies of water and wetlands fall under the Clean Water Act. The rewrite of some definitions was needed after earlier U.S. Supreme Court decisions, EPA officials said.
The issue is important because owners typically must seek a permit to alter any protected lake, pond, river, stream or wetland, which can cost significant amounts of money and time.
The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with other federal departments, have the power to institute the rule changes without further approval. However, Congress can block the changes by passing legislation.
The EPA will be taking public comment on the proposed changes until Oct. 20.
McCarthy told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that the visit to Missouri will give her a chance to dispel misunderstandings about the proposed rewrite.
She said the new definitions will not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act and, in fact, might eliminate a few categories of waterways that are included in the act but aren’t enforced anymore because of the court decisions. Generally, she said, the things that are already covered will remain covered, and the things that aren’t won’t be.
“The bottom line is with this proposal, that if you weren’t supposed to get a permit before, you don’t need to get one now,” she said. “That is the reality, and that’s what we need to talk about.”
She acknowledged she has heard some legitimate concerns, but she’s also heard plenty of “ludicrous” ones: The act will not regulate puddles on lawns or in fields, she said. It won’t regulate all ditches. It won’t regulate groundwater.
But Kansas agricultural groups and officials don’t think there’s any misunderstanding. They see the rewrite as a power grab by the agency, a chance to dramatically expand its authority.
Most of the state’s government officials and agricultural groups have lined up against the rule changes.
Leslie Kaufman, president and CEO of the Kansas Cooperative Council, said the expansion of the scope of the Clean Water Act is hard to see at first but can be traced in how terms are defined.
“When you look at one definition and then another and then another, it really extends the jurisdictional reach of the EPA and the Corps to a range that is unprecedented,” she said. “It is definitely broader than what the EPA claims it is, further than just a ‘clarification.’ ”
It would have the impact of forcing some farmers and other producers to seek EPA permits for things that now do not require them, she said.
Greg Foley, director of the Division of Conservation for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said that the state Department of Health and Environment – the agency that enforces the Clean Water Act in Kansas – believes the number of miles of regulated waterways in Kansas will rise from a little more than 30,000 to about 130,000.
It will mean that a large number of seasonal streambeds in western Kansas will fall under regulation, where they didn’t before, he said.
“As far as the impact on the day-to-day Kansas, it’s exponential,” he said. “I’m confident it will cost a significant amount of money and a significant amount of time.”