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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Farmers Urge EPA To 'Ditch' Proposed Clean Water Act Revisions

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

Water is a common and often contentious issue in the West. But now, farmers across the country are also riled up because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to revise the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Depending on who you talk to these revisions are either a “land grab” under the “brute force” of the federal government or a simple clarification of rules that ensure all Americans have clean water to drink.

“The Clean Water Act is the basic law that protects water bodies across the United States from pollution,” Nancy Stoner, the top water administrator at the EPA, said.

Stoner said two Supreme Court rulings in the past decade muddied the waters when it came to what’s actually protected by the 40-year-old law and clarification is needed.

But she added, "There's no new types of waters included.”

Instead, Stoner said the EPA simply wants to spell out that the law covers all rivers and streams including those that run dry during the summer, something more common to occur in the West.

Ditches, Puddles And Wetlands

That argument isn’t swaying the critics though. The American Farm Bureau has launched a campaign with a rallying cry of “Ditch the Rule.” That’s because the bureau believes the new rules could apply to ditches -- and even puddles.

"That's kind of scary when you're a farmer," Angela Bailey said. She grows decorative trees and shrubs on land that's been in her family for nearly a century. Their small plot of land is in rolling hills about 20 miles east of downtown Portland.

On her farm is a low point that she said during a rainy winter, would be a big puddle.

"But nothing really more than a puddle by my estimation," Bailey said. "Maybe at its worst, maybe water that comes up to my ankle."

Bailey said there are more than a dozen low places around her farm where water collects like this after heavy rains. She said it typically evaporates or seeps into the ground. But she added that she isn't sure whether these normally dry spots would be subject to regulation under the new rules. If they are, that could mean costly and drawn-out environmental assessments and permits for any farm work done near these transient patches of water.

"I do feel like there's a lot of uncertainty associated with the proposed rule," Bailey said.

States do have their own regulations that can complement or sometimes exceed federal rules when it comes to clean water, In Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality regulates waterways.

Jane Hickman of that agency's Water Quality Division said it's possible the expanded federal definition of waterways will have minimal impact in Oregon. That's because the state's definition of a regulated waterway is already broader than the proposed federal version.

But Stoner said, "We didn't change the definition of wetland."

She reiterated that the revisions are only clarifying the rules to include the smallest streams, connected wetlands and rivers that can dry up during the summer months.

"Some of those are streams that flow seasonally or after rainfall events," she said. "Those are very important to protect."

Stoner said a kind of the deciding point is that water must have a connection to the downstream flow. That would seem to rule out the now-you-see-them, now-you-don't puddles on Angela Bailey's farm.

Extending The Debate

But despite repeated reassurances from the EPA, agricultural advocates believe the government has something more up its sleeve. Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader blasted the agency during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.

"This is ludicrous," he said. "I mean, I don't think anyone with a straight face can say that this is anything but a huge grab of jurisdictional power at the end of the day."

Schrader, a Democrat in an agricultural swing district, has joined a largely Republican opposition to the new rules. These critics say it’s more government intrusion into farming practices and control of what people can do with their own land. The opposition campaign has drummed up so much of an outcry that the EPA extended a public comment period through October instead of ending it this month.

But supporters of the pending regulations are also raising their voice, including Matt Milletto, owner of a bustling coffee shop a stone's throw from the Willamette River in Portland. That puts him literally downstream from Bailey's property.

Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Matt Milletto co-owns Water Avenue Coffee in Portland.

Milletto said it's important for his business to reduce even the potential for pollution in the upstream water supply.

"Coffee, when it's brewed, is made up of 98 percent water," he explained. "We're greatly affected, being a beverage-focused company, with not only actual clean water but with the public's assurance that water's clean and what they're drinking's clean."

The debate over the best way to make that happen may extend well beyond October when the public comment period ends. That’s because opponents in Congress have vowed to take it to the House and Senate floor and simply overturn the new rules. It’s not clear at this point if they would have the votes to do that.

But talk to just about anyone familiar with these proposed water rules and sooner or later they'll mention a YouTube video that was put together by a Missouri farm family.

A voice on the video sings, "That's enough, that's enough, no more power plays. That's enough, that's enough. We won't back away," to the tune of "Let it Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen." But in this politically charged version, the lyrics urge the government to "Let it Go" when it comes to the proposed Clean Water Act revision.