KANSAS CITY — Confusion over what types of waterways are covered under the Clean Water Act is driving an Environmental Protection Agency effort to clarify who has jurisdiction over those waters, EPA's chief told a group of farm interests Thursday in Kansas City.
Agriculture groups and farm-state politicians contend the proposed rules would give the government more power to dictate what farmers can do on their own land. They say the rules are an example of governmental interference by bureaucrats who don't know as much as farmers do about how to be good stewards of their land.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Thursday countered that the proposal merely clarifies which bodies of water already are under federal jurisdiction in the Clean Water Act and doesn't include new restrictions — contrary to misinformation coming from foes in Washington.
"While EPA feels confident that, under this proposal, fewer waters will be jurisdictional than under President Reagan, we heard loud and clear that farmers and ranchers rightly need to know what this rule means for them," McCarthy said.
The effort to redefine what constitutes "waters of the United States" was spurred by two Supreme Court decisions that blurred people's understanding of what waters are covered under the Clean Water Act, she said.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst, who attended Thursday's speech, said it's nice that McCarthy is talking to farmers but that he questions whether she takes their concerns seriously.
He noted that McCarthy has been quoted calling some complaints about the proposed rule ludicrous, suggesting that farmers don't understand what's going on.
"To me she's imputing bad faith in our complaints about the rule," Hurst said. "We do think it is that big of an expansion of EPA's jurisdiction. We think we have read it correctly."
As part of the EPA proposal is a list of 56 conservation practices that are exempt from the Clean Water Act. McCarthy said they are part of a larger group of exemptions already in the act and were singled out to provide a list of "slam dunk" farming practices that don't need oversight.
"I have never proposed anything that I thought would be so well received as this that has fallen totally flat on its face," she told her audience. "I need to understand from you where we went wrong."
Opponents have a lot of explanations, including their belief that the proposed rule is part of a federal effort to control all water and further intrude into the lives of farmers.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced Thursday that he's directing the state departments of Health and Environment and Agriculture to file public comments opposing the EPA's proposal. He said he'll also send a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to withdraw the proposed rule and telling him that Kansas is prepared to challenge it in court.
Brownback announced his actions during a news conference in Dodge City, where he was attending the annual 3i Show industry and trade exposition.
"This is the latest example of federal overreach by the Obama administration which seems oblivious to the real world activities of farmers and ranchers," the Republican governor said.
Brownback also is a strong critic of a rule announced by the EPA last month for cutting power plant emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.
The water rule has been drawing strong criticism from the state's agriculture industry, and U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Republican representing the 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas called it "a massive power grab" that will have the EPA regulating ditches and puddles.