Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined 14 of his counterparts this week opposing a White House proposal to cut down the number of wetlands and waterways protected by federal regulations.
A letter from the attorneys general said President Donald Trump’s proposed rollback of the Waters of the United States rule “would create a gaping hole in water pollution control.”
Trump’s push to revoke the rule is supported by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, who for the last five years has been vocal on the need to limit the scope of federally protected waters. Proponents say it would be a win for the energy, development and agricultural industries.
“This isn’t some kind of a subjective, theoretical discussion that’s not going to impact people. This will directly impact homeowners in Clark County,” Herrera Beutler told The Columbian in an interview Thursday.
The Waters of the United States rule was instituted in June 2015 in an attempt to better define the terms in the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The rule identified which bodies of water needed a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to be dredged or polluted, and which bodies of water qualified for a case-by-case review.
The current standard: Does the body of water in question include a “significant nexus” with other, larger waterways? Isolated bodies like puddles, ditches and artificial ponds for livestock and irrigation systems, for example, are specifically exempt from the regulations.
But the current rule still amounts to overreach from the EPA, Herrera Beutler said, arguing that the “significant nexus” standard is poorly defined and arbitrarily applied. She’s pushing for a return to the original 1972 standard, in which protected waters were those considered “navigable.”
“The problem isn’t that they provided some exemptions. They should have,” she said. “(But) if you’re going to provide a list of exemptions, it means you’re not exempting other things.”
Seasonal standing water, for example, could be found to have a significant nexus with a body of water and require a permit to manage, Herrera Beutler said.
“We want clean rivers and streams. But we’re not idiots. Give us some credibility here — we don’t need the EPA to require us to get a permit for something we know is not a navigable water.”
Limiting federal authority under the Clean Water Act was one of Trump’s first priorities after his inauguration. The decision is part of a broader series of moves by Trump to cut down on environmental regulations in favor of boosting energy and agriculture.
In February 2017 he issued an executive order instructing Scott Pruitt, then the EPA administrator, to start the process.
Herrera Beutler’s been outspoken on the issue for longer than that, pushing back on the Obama-era regulation after it was first proposed in 2014.
“Essentially, if we left it as it was, then all of our land, public or private, could fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA. That’s not what the Clean Water Act was meant to do,” Herrera Beutler said. She cited a 2015 memo from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers major general, which criticized the EPA’s process and conclusions when it drafted the Waters of the United States rule.
Earlier this year, Herrera Beutler introduced the Regulatory Certainty for Navigable Waters Act, which would repeal the Waters of the United States rule. At the time, she called the Obama rule “an egregious government power grab.”
This week, Herrera Beutler said she was disappointed that Ferguson, a Democrat, had signed on to the letter pushing back against Trump’s proposal.
“I’m very concerned that he made it a political issue,” Herrera Beutler said.
In their joint statement, the attorneys general said that Trump’s proposal would eliminate federal oversight of more than half of the nation’s wetlands and 15 percent of its steams.
“In the proposed rule, without a reasoned basis, the agencies have abandoned both the governing ‘significant nexus’ test for defining waters subject to the act’s jurisdiction and their prior scientific findings under that test,” the joint letter stated.
“They have arbitrarily and capriciously reduced protections for tributaries, adjacent waters, wetlands and other important water resources that significantly affect downstream waters.”
A group of 17 other states, spearheaded by West Virginia, has sent a separate letter to the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing their support for Trump’s proposal.
The EPA is expected to finalize and implement the new, narrower protections by the end of the year.