Idaho’s Simpson fights new EPA water rule

In October, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson warned that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy had “fired the first shot across the bow in what could potentially become a water war.”

The war is here.

The Idaho Republican was talking about a seemingly minute redefinition of the term “Waters of the United States” the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers had proposed earlier that year. The definition matters because it determines which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act, and which waters are either left to state regulators or left unregulated.

A federal rule made final last week aims to clarify which small waterways fall under federal protection after two Supreme Court rulings left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the waters affected would be only those with a “direct and significant” connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected.

The rule change has sparked a backlash from conservative lawmakers, while conservationists marshal behind what they see as a key protection for clean water.

“I find it extremely disappointing, though not surprising, that the EPA has moved forward on this controversial rule in spite of widespread opposition from members of Congress, the states, and the American public,” Simpson said in a statement. “In Idaho, water is life, and I don’t intend to sit back and watch the EPA take control of state waters, leaving Idaho farmers, ranchers, and landowners at the mercy of federal regulations.”

Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson warned that under the proposed regulations, “farmers would have to get permits in order to do mundane tasks.”

“It’s just more regulations on farms, and that equals a higher cost of doing business,” he said.

But conservationists see a much more limited action.

Rob Van Kirk, senior scientist with the Henry’s Fork Foundation, said he can see why some in the ag industry are worried. “I believe there are some legitimate concerns on the part of agricultural users,” he said. “There is a fine line between streams and irrigation canals in this part of the world.”

But Van Kirk also warned there is often an urge to jump too quickly to conclusions. “There is a tendency for people to make generalizations about environmental regulations and government agencies that are not well-founded,” he said.

Chris Hunt, an Idaho Falls resident and national communications director for Trout Unlimited, previously said EPA’s proposed rule simply restores a system the courts broke, bringing small streams that don’t always flow into rivers back under the Clean Water Act.

“These waters were once protected,” he said in October.

Those sentiments are echoed now by Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League.

“This did not appear to be an expansion of EPA authority,” Hayes said. “This does not appear to be a radical departure from the status quo.”

Previously, the Clean Water Act was limited to waters that were “navigable,” but two controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 left the definition of that term in doubt. That, in turn, left lower courts struggling to determine which bodies of water fall under federal jurisdiction.

Some of the biggest controversy surrounds whether the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have the authority to regulate small streams that only flow for part of the year. The EPA says protecting those waters are key to ensuring people have clean water to drink.

“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” the EPA’s McCarthy said in a news release.

The EPA claims one in three Americans draws drinking water from a stream that would not be protected by the Clean Water Act if the proposed rule is blocked.

But efforts to block the rule change are well underway. Even before the EPA had published its rule, the House passed a bill blocking its implementation. So far, that bill hasn’t made much progress in the Senate. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any such bills.

But Simpson — who is chairman of the committee that sets the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget and sits on the committee that oversees the EPA’s budget — has considerable power over whether the proposed rule moves forward.

In the past, spokeswoman Nikki Wallace said, Simpson has inserted language into agency budgets to block such rule changes.

“I anticipate that he will continue down that path as a result of EPA’s most recent ruling,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed.