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Environmentalists Urge Support For Water Rules Rep. Southerland Seeks To Block

Jessica Palombo

As the federal government seeks to clarify which water bodies it protects, a Florida congressman came to Tallahassee this week to decry what he calls a gross overreach of power and tout his legislation blocking the effort. But Florida environmental groups and former state regulators say the federal clarification is necessary to protect Florida’s fresh water from pollution.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam joined Congressman Steve Southerland (R-FL2) for a press conference Monday hyping his bill, the Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act of 2014.

Southerland summed up his concerns like this:

“When the EPA proposed an outrageous new rule that would expand its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act to include almost any body of water, from puddles to ditches, to pipes, to farmland ponds, I wanted to return to Tallahassee – the heart of our district – to begin our fight anew.”

Vicki Tschinkel, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, says, “I’m not even sure it’s possible that he personally read the regulations.”

She says she’s mystified at Southerland’s characterization of the proposed rules. For one, she says they actually exempt farm ditches and ponds, as they have since the 1970s. Second, she says they don’t expand the federal government’s jurisdiction. What they do, she says, is give extra detail about what qualify as protected headwaters that become tributaries that flow into lakes and rivers.

“This conversation has to happen and a decision has to be made, not just to protect the water bodies but those people who have to do work around these areas knows which areas are protected and which require permits and which don’t,” she says.

Tschinkel says people who farm or build structures or roads need to know the difference, and because two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have muddled Clean Water Act definitions, clarifying them is crucial.

The EPA estimates an additional 3 percent of water bodies would be indisputably protected.

But at the press conference, Commissioner Putnam warned of incredibly broad regulation.

“Folks, your front yard is mushy in North Florida right now. Should that be subject to [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers regulation?” he asked.

Florida environmentalists say the fear mongering doesn’t reflect the EPA’s plan. Sarah de Flesco is Florida Program Director for a group called Clean Water Action.

“This is not something new. These wetlands and streams have been historically protected,” she says. “And so I don’t think we need to start from scratch and create a whole new consultation process for it.”

Southerland’s bill requires the EPA come up with an alternative to the current proposal after discussing with state and local officials. He has 120 House co-sponsors. But former Florida water regulator Tschinkel says they’re being backed by industry groups who haven’t liked the Clean Water Act from the beginning.

“That anti-regulatory movement isn’t pushing against what’s happening new today, they’re pushing against things that have been in existence since the 1970s,” she says.

The EPA is taking public comment on the rules through late October. Meanwhile Southerland’s bill is heading for a House floor vote.