A revised federal water pollution rule issued today is earning praise from Montana conservationists and condemnation from the agriculture and building sectors.
The staff scientist for the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, Chris Brick, says this revision offers important safeguards.
"We all live downstream. We all depend on clean water."
Two previous Supreme Court rulings on the matter raised more questions than they answered. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to offer a new alternative.
The agencies say it clarifies provisions of the Clean Water Act by distinguishing which smaller bodies of water qualify for federal protection; but the new rule faces congressional push-back and possible legal challenges. John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation says it's a bad idea.
"It becomes a vast overreach of the Clean Water Act."
Proponents say the rule only affects waters directly connected to already-protected larger downstream bodies of water.
The Clark Fork Coalition's Chris Brick says this revised water pollution rule introduces much-needed predictability.
"For people to know when they need a permit, when they don't and which waters will be protected and which waters are not as important to protect perhaps because they are not connected to major bodies of water."
Montana Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President, John Youngberg says farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of clean water because they rely on it every day.
"The concern is this will reach into places where there's runoff; ephemeral streams, intermittent streams, where they may only be water running for a few days out of the year or a few hours out of the year. [They'd] be controlled by the EPA."
Youngberg says this plan would affect every Montanan who want to build in one of these areas.
"You know how it is in Montana; snow melts and little gullies fill with water. That may be the only time they're full, but if you wanted to put a house there you would actually have to get a permit to dredge and fill in an area that's dry 90 to 99-percent of the year."
Not so, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. She told reporters during a telephone press conference that any ditches or minor subsurface water not connected to larger bodies of water would be exempt from the new rule.
"We really paid attention to this issue because we knew it was a central issue that people seem to be stuck on. I understood it and I want to put it to bed. We did everything we could to make sure that was the case."
Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke wants the EPA to withdraw the rule, so does U.S. Senator Steve Daines. The Republicans say the rule threatens Montana agriculture and natural resource industries as well as Montanans' property rights.
— Steve Daines (@SteveDaines) May 27, 2015
— Ryan Zinke (@RepRyanZinke) May 27, 2015
Democratic Senator Jon Tester, a Big Sandy-area farmer, generally supports the water rule, but says he’ll work to improve it even more. He also urges the agencies to improve outreach to those with questions about the measure.