Northern California farmers and growers associations welcome a do-over of Clean Water Act rules enacted under Obama, but conservation groups say the rules are important to protecting and preserving one of the nation's most vital natural resources.
An executive order by President Trump this week directing the EPA to review the Waters of the United States rule, which was a key part of President Obama’s environmental legacy, drew strong, mixed reactions.
The 1972 Clean Water Act authorized the federal government to regulate the discharge of pollutants into “navigable waters,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. However, as pollution in smaller waterways such as streams and wetlands doesn’t stay put, but makes its way into rivers and bays, for many years the act was applied broadly. However, after two Supreme Court decisions in the ‘80s and changes in EPA practice under the Bush administration, the agency backed away from enforcement of the law in these “upstream” areas.
The Waters of the United States, also known as the Clean Water rule, was crafted to bring clarity to the issue and establish under the law the right of federal agencies to regulate smaller, upstream waterways and wetlands.
Tuesday’s executive order doesn’t have the authority to rescind the Waters of the United States rule. According to the New York Times, reviewing and rewriting the rule will be a “lengthy and complicated legal process” that could take more than four years.
Not surprisingly, businesses consider the rule overreaching, and complain it infringes on private property rights and will dampen the economy and job creation.
In California, agriculture is perhaps most affected by the rule.
The California Farm Bureau Federation issued a statement welcoming Trump’s order to review it, hoping it will lead to “a more cooperative approach to environmental regulation.”
California farmers take pride in their stewardship of the land and its waterway, and want to do the right thing, said Kari Fisher, an environmental lawyer for the Farm Bureau. But the clean water law is confusing and cumbersome, and makes it difficult for farmers to comply.
Definition changes under the rule could make farmers responsible for land features that no longer exist or are not visible to them, Fisher said. In general, the rule places more limits and dumps more paperwork and permitting requirements on farmers, which is particularly burdensome to small farms.
In California, farmers are already held to rigorous standards of water regulation by the state.
“California water quality law goes above and beyond the Clean Water Law,” Fisher said.
Fisher reiterated that California farmers want to cooperate with environmental authorities in protecting waterways.
“We’re trying to find the balance of reasonable regulations, still allowing farmers and ranchers to provide the food and crops we need,” she said.
Runoff from agricultural lands can have serious impacts. In 2000 the EPA called agricultural runoff the “leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and lakes.”
Almost 60 percent of stream miles in America are “small, intermittent or headwater,” according to information on the Trout Unlimited website.
“Protecting these waters is essential to ensuring that adjacent or downstream waters remain clear, clean and healthy for fish, wildlife and communities,” Trout Unlimited said in a statement on the Clean Water act.
It shouldn’t come down to a choice between protecting the economy or protecting the environment, said Professor Charles Kolstad of Stanford University Department of Economics.
Regulations “done right, serve society. And when done right, the social benefit (e.g. better health from less pollution) outweigh the costs businesses have to bear,” Kolstad said in an email. “President Reagan required all regulations to pass a benefit-cost test… and all presidents since Reagan have adopted that criterion for new regulations.”
Kolstad noted that regulations are often blamed for job losses when the real culprits are automation and productivity gains.
Regarding the water rule, Kolstad, who once had a small farm in Illinois, said the task of protecting waterways without overly burdening farmers “is not an easy problem to solve.”
There’s nothing wrong with reviewing the rule to determine whether it achieves the right balance of protecting waterways without harming the economy, Kolstad said, but he thought that the Administration would not achieve the right balance if it simply axes the rule without regard for the environmental effects.