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Crapo: Feds Overreaching on Water Policy

Americans rely on water for everything from individual survival to agriculture, commerce, transportation, recreation and energy. In the western United States, water is the lifeblood of many communities, and we take pride in our efforts and successes in managing it.

To the dismay of many people, there has been an aggressive push in recent years to drastically expand federal regulatory powers over water. This has been highly controversial, especially in my state of Idaho, where water is at the epicenter of policymaking and integral to our economic well-being. It is time for us to re-evaluate the direction of federal involvement.

Water quality protection in the United States is driven by two federal laws: the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (or Clean Water Act) governs pollution of the nation’s surface waters, while the Safe Drinking Water Act is the key federal law for protecting public water supplies from harmful contaminants. Both laws reserved significant enforcement and implementation responsibilities for state governments, which is a reflection of Congress’ intent for the federal government to partner with states and local communities to protect our waterways and water supplies. Yet the federal government and some Members of Congress appear to be losing sight of that vision.

There are numerous federal laws that are increasingly encroaching on state sovereignty with regard to water policy. One of the driving laws is the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, also known as the Clean Water Act. Recent efforts to modify the CWA may provide perhaps the greatest example of federal overreach on water policy, and the so-called Clean Water Restoration Act is example No. 1 for how some Members of Congress want to drastically expand the power of the federal government over surface waters by modifying our current water laws. The bill was introduced in response to two Supreme Court cases, in which the court found that the federal government exceeded its authorities under the CWA by regulating areas that had no direct connection to relatively permanent bodies of water.

Farmers in my state are particularly concerned that this legislation would allow the federal government to aggressively regulate farming practices under the Clean Water Act because their land is located near “any waters of the U.S.” I agree with their concerns. This legislation represents a drastic expansion of the ability of the federal government to regulate water sources, from intermittent streams to prairie potholes. State and local governments and private property owners are concerned, as am I.

After the Clean Water Restoration Act passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a partisan vote, the Environmental Protection Agency released its Clean Water Enforcement Action Plan. This plan concludes that states are not doing their part and that the federal government is not being aggressive enough in its enforcement actions. The EPA found that enforcement is a problem in 39 states and that “enforcement penalty calculation, documentation and collection” is lacking in 45 states. Instead of undertaking a serious initiative with states, the EPA considered a series of “escalation responses”; one option was to withdraw state-delegated authority to enforce Clean Water Act provisions and taking over those responsibilities altogether.

I oppose this plan because its enactment will create far more problems than it solves. There is a better way.

We all share a collective interest and responsibility to protect and improve our environment. That is why I have worked across the aisle for many years to promote bipartisan modifications and improvements to federal water quality protection laws and alternative energy development, as well as water, species and public lands conservation. But I also recognize that collaboration and effective partnerships between the federal government and its state and local partners and private property owners have the greatest potential for success. Inflexible mandates handed down by the federal government do not foster cooperation — they cause resentment.

On the other hand, I have led collaborative efforts between federal, state and local governments and stakeholder organizations to help address these issues by building consensus and working toward collaborative solutions that we can all support. If the federal government is going to get serious about addressing environmental challenges effectively, it must seek to achieve these worthwhile objectives through partnerships with others. It is not only possible — it is necessary. If we work together to craft solutions that work for a broad diversity of interests, we can find success.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife.

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