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Wyoming Lawmakers Battle The Feds Over Water

Bob Beck

There's a water war going on in the nation's capital that has Wyoming lawmakers and land owners worried the federal government is soon going to be regulating most every drop of water that falls from the sky.

The Environmental Protection Agency has become one of the most despised agencies here in Washington. Their new air quality standards are expected to shutter coal fired power plants nationwide. Now they're taking aim at rainwater and snowpack’s, which has enlivened Republicans nationwide. Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis says a new rule they're proposing would be devastating.

“…especially to Wyoming, where water is our most precious natural resource. It just strikes fear in everyone’s heart.”

The proposed EPA rule is aimed at guaranteeing clean water from California to Maine. It seeks to clarify and expand which of the nation's waters are covered under the Clean Water Act. That law gives the agency power to regulate "contiguous" waterways, such as rivers that flow from one state to another. But the EPA says there are many areas, especially out west, that are dry for much of the year until there's a downpour or the snowpack melts. Lummis says the agency’s proposal to regulate those temporary stretches of water would expand the scope of the Clean Water Act. 

“They will be regulating down to the stream, the creek, the ditch, the pond, the puddle; and that is unprecedented, tremendous overreach.”  

If the rule is implemented the EPA would have more control over land developments across the country. Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso says the rule would harm important industries in the state. 

“Ranchers…farmers… very concerned about the EPA going way beyond the original intent of legislation and trying to do with regulation what they couldn’t pay us legislatively. Folks at home don’t think that Washington has the authority and Washington is abusing it’s power.”

In two decisions the Supreme Court told lawmakers they had to clarify what they meant by contiguous waterways, but congressional inaction has, once again, led to bureaucratic action, which Barrasso decries. 

“Well the EPA has a long history of exaggerating or underscoring what they want to see happen instead of abiding by the law and the EPA needs to follow the law.” 

The EPA says they’re not interested in a land – or more to the point – a water grab. They argue a dry stream one day becomes a river or raging stream another, and then everyone downstream suffers. Virginia Congressman Jim Moran is the top Democratic lawmaker on the House spending subcommittee in charge of the nation’s Interior and Environment. He says the proposed rule is intended to keep things like farm and storm water runoff from polluting drinking water miles away from the source.

“117 million Americans get their water from water sources that are not running all year long. They may run under the water but they dry up during intermittent parts of the year.”

During the EPA’s open comment period, more than ten thousand people asked or demanded that the agency rethink the proposal, so the agency extended the comment period until October. Recently the House voted 262-152 to block the EPA from implementing its new water rule. Congressman Moran says business interests are dominating the debate in Washington and feeding people false information.

“These river systems are interstate and it’s not fair to let one river system pollute the people that live downstream from it. And the people that are driving this, this effort to negate the EPA's ability to regulate it are the mining people, the mountaintop mining removal operations.”

Lummis says she hasn’t heard from any mining interests.

“I have not. It is more the state regulators; it is cities, towns, and counties; it is tribal governments; it is farmers and ranchers.”

The EPA says opponents are also blowing the debate out of proportion because the rule will only expand their control over the nation’s waters by three percent. That’s not good enough for Lummis.

“Whether it’s three or thirty percent it’s still overreach. It’s still completely more jurisdiction than the federal government has had before or needs or has made the case for, or has shown that states are not doing well.”

Congress only has a few more legislative days on the docket ahead of November's elections. That means this contemporary water war is likely to keep raging – possibly at a stream or even a currently dry reservoir – near you.

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