New EPA rule muddies the water for Oregon farmers, ranchers, and property owners

May 29, 2015

OP-ED COLUMN: “New EPA rule muddies the water for Oregon farmers, ranchers, and property owners”

by Rep. Greg Walden

All across Oregon and the rural West, farmers, ranchers, and other property owners have been wondering: what will Washington, D.C. try to unnecessarily regulate next? Where will a federal agency again attempt to curtail private property rights? How will this uncertainty affect already struggling rural economies?

This week we got that answer when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized their rule to massively and unilaterally expand federal jurisdiction over water and private property.  With the stroke of a pen, the administration has pushed aside the “navigable waters” limitations of the Clean Water Act, leaving in its wake vague definitions that potentially open up intermittent streams, vernal pools, irrigation ditches, or ponds to even more federal regulations.

The EPA first proposed this rule under the guise of “clarifying” the scope of the Clean Water Act. But I’ve heard throughout Oregon that the vague language in their proposal actually creates more uncertainty, not less. More red tape, not less. For farmers, ranchers, Oregonians, and others that utilize our water resources, it is a huge threat.

Ranchers are wondering when the EPA will come after their stock ponds. Wheat growers worry about an intermittent stream adjacent to a field. Fruit and vegetable growers are concerned about their irrigation ditches. As one eastern Oregon rancher told me, the rule is “an overreach by the federal government that threatens to eliminate conservation practices currently implemented by farmers and ranchers across Oregon.”

I have long opposed expansion of this authority, whether through legislation or administrative rulemaking. This regulatory overreach by the EPA blatantly ignores Congress’ repeated rejection of similar legislative efforts to expand jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act in the past.  Of course, we shouldn’t be that surprised. The EPA has tried this before, and they have twice been rebuked by the Supreme Court.

Even the Small Business Administration has said that the proposed rule would have “direct, significant effects” on small businesses, and recommended that the EPA withdraw their rule. But the agency went full steam ahead this week.

The economies of rural Oregon and other communities around the country face enough obstacles already. Broken federal land policies and unnecessary red tape have strangled communities, often leaving only agriculture to grow jobs and combat unemployment rates in the double digits. We don’t need agencies in Washington D.C. erecting more hurdles and creating more uncertainty as our farmers and ranchers work to feed the world and create jobs in rural communities.

That’s why I worked hard to pass a bill in the House to require the EPA to withdraw the rule. The Regulatory Integrity Protection Act (H.R. 1732) passed the House on a bipartisan vote in May. 24 House Democrats (including my Oregon colleague Kurt Schrader) joined every Republican in supporting this common-sense measure.

As one Oregon farmer told me when a similar bill passed the House last year, “This attempt to control private lands using the Clean Water Act must be stopped. It is important that farms be able to focus on raising fresh, healthy, and necessary food and feed for this world without unnecessary regulations. Congress has taken an important step to help ensure farmers can continue to farm their land without federal permission and allows landowners to meaningfully improve water quality through existing state programs.”

The House has also passed legislation that would prohibit funding from being used on this rule (this is on top of our successful efforts to cut the EPA’s budget by 21%--$2.2 billion—over the past five years).

The Senate should take up and pass these bills right away and send the EPA back to the drawing board. Our farmers, ranchers and rural communities deserve better than federal agencies strangling them with more red tape. It’s time to ditch this rule.

Greg Walden represents Oregon’s Second Congressional District, which covers 20 counties in southern, central, and eastern Oregon.

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