WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are pushing to block an Obama administration rule designed to protect water quality in small streams, tributaries and wetlands before it goes into effect later this year.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved legislation Wednesday that would force the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw and rewrite rules issued in May that clarify which of those smaller bodies of water are regulated under the Clean Water Act. The EPA says the rule will protect the waters from pollution and development and safeguard drinking water for 117 million Americans.
Republicans in Congress say the rules are federal overreach, would expand current law and could be a costly and confusing burden for landowners and farmers. The House passed a bill last month that would also block the rules — legislation the White House threatened to veto. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has called the rule "a raw and tyrannical power grab."
The Senate version of the legislation would force the EPA to further consult with local governments on the rule, do a full economic analysis and assess the impacts on small business owners. It would also lay out parameters for what could be regulated.
The water rules "are sweeping and will create uncertainty in communities across America," said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, sponsor of the Senate bill.
The EPA rules aim to clarify which smaller waterways fall under federal protection after two Supreme Court rulings left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain. Those decisions in 2001 and 2006 left 60 percent of the nation's streams and millions of acres of wetlands without clear federal protection, according to EPA, causing confusion for landowners and government officials.
The EPA says the waters affected by the new rules would be only those with a "direct and significant" connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected — tributaries that show evidence of flowing water, for example. The rules would kick in and force a permitting process only if a business or landowner took steps to pollute or destroy covered waters.
After the committee approved the bill to block it, EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said the waters rule "is grounded in science, based on extensive public engagement, and is responsive to calls from members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, scientists and the public — all of whom asked EPA and the Army to clarify which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act."
Farmers and other landowners have expressed concern that every stream, ditch and puddle on their private land could now be subject to federal oversight.
Some Democrats have supported the effort to block the rules. North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly are both co-sponsors of Barrasso's bill, saying the waters rule is a top issue they hear about from their agricultural constituents.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the top Democrat on the environmental panel, strongly opposed the legislation. She said failing to protect the nation's drinking water could put people in danger and called the bill "a back door repeal" of the Clean Water Act.
"We should be focusing on restoring much-needed certainty, consistency, and effectiveness to the Clean Water Act — not undermining our landmark environmental protections," Boxer said.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick