Monday at the Montana Capitol the Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee raised questions about new federal clean water rules intended to give the Environmental Protection Agency a say in regulating many streams and ditches that are now the domain of state and local regulators. Montana lawmakers from both parties say they’re troubled by the new rules.
“We’re going to have much more government involvement in actions that should not be," says Rep. Chas Vincent. "It should be handled at the state level, at the conservation district level, if at any level."
Libby Republican Senator Chas Vincent says the rules released by the EPA in late May will apply the federal Clean Water Act to many more small waterways than are currently covered. Congress is already responding, with proposed legislation to cancel the new rules or blunt their effect. Vincent says the state can do something too, by assuming responsibility for local projects wherever federal law allows it, such as issuing permits for placing fill material into wetlands or waterways.
"We can apply for primacy on this permitting process. Two other states in the nation have done that. The real reason that other states have looked at it and not done it is because of the cost."
Democratic Senator Bradley Hamlett of Cascade shares Vincent’s concern about the new rules, dubbed "Waters of the U.S." He fears that water regulation now handled by the state will be taken over by federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, which lack the local knowledge and the staffing to do the job as well.
"Whether you got to build a bridge across a river, or go back into a stream to re-establish your takeout for your irrigation diversion, that you’re not waiting two years to get it."
Hamlett was one of several members on the committee who questioned state environmental officials about the scope and eventual effect of the new clean-water rules. The answer that came back in almost every case was, it’s too soon to tell how the rules will affect Montana. They were announced less than a week ago, and will go into effect in 60 days unless Congress intervenes.