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CWRA passes key Senate committee

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 03, 2009 5:47 pm    Post subject: CWRA passes key Senate committee  Reply with quote

CWRA passes key Senate committee

By Tim Spielman, Associate Editor, MN Outdoor News
Thursday, June 25, 2009 9:52 AM CDT

Washington - Conservation groups last week celebrated the first major victory for federal legislation they say could protect millions of acres of wetlands in the United States left susceptible by Supreme Court decisions earlier this decade.

An amended version of the Clean Water Restoration Act, meant to restore the level of waters protection to that prior to the court decisions, passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by a vote of 12-7. Supporters say the bill would strengthen the original Clean Water Act of 1972. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a member of the committee, co-authored the bill.

"This is a huge step toward restoring the Clean Water Act's safety net for prairie potholes and well over 20 million acres of wetlands throughout the U.S. that provide critical habitat for waterfowl and other fish and wildlife - and hunters and anglers," said Scott Yaich, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited. Much of that acreage is located in the prairie potholes of the Dakotas, a major duck-producing region.

Detractors fear the new version would expand the scope of the bill, and reduce property rights.

Among other things, the bill replaces the term "navigable waters" with "waters of the United States" to determine which waters are protected. The newer version also spells out exemptions that existed in the 1972 law. The original CWRA version, authored by Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, offered a "general reference" to the exemptions, according to Geoff Mullins, of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The "compromise" bill "explicitly put (the exemptions/exclusions) in the 'definition' section, which carries a lot more weight," he said.

Those exclusions, supported by farm groups and others, include "prior converted cropland" and "waste treatment systems."

The amendment language regarding exclusions won the support of agriculture in Klobuchar's home state. In a letter to the senator, Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson wrote: "MFU is concerned that the legislation add no extra burdens or regulation to Minnesota farmers who are already very well regulated in Minnesota regarding water and wetland issues, including provisions included in the (state's) Wetlands Conservation Act."

Johnson said the MFU would be "comfortable and supportive of the legislation" if the exemptions for agriculture were "clarified and maintained."

Supporters also say the bill would save federal dollars by stream-lining the permitting system, one they say now is shrouded in confusion for the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, those agencies charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act.

"This will help landowners' ability to get permits," Mullins said. "Right now there's so much confusion over what's covered and what's not covered."

He said the EPA and Corps of Engineers now must consider each permit request on a case by case basis.

According to Ducks Unlimited, "The guidance on interpreting the Clean Water At from the EPA and Army Corps came in response to two Supreme Court cases. Since the guidance was released, confusion over permitting requirements among farmers, ranchers, developers, and other landowners and managers has increased dramatically as agencies have struggled to apply the guidance to proposed projects."

Mullins said passage by the Senate committee was the first thumbs-up the legislation has received in Congress. It's been introduced during past sessions, but has failed to generate enough interest and support to move forward. He hopes the Senate committee action provides a springboard - for both Senate action, as well as activity in the House, where it could be authored by Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, whose sponsored similar past legislation.

"There's clear momentum now for legislation to be introduced and considered in the House of Representatives this summer," said Scott Kovarovics, conservation director for the Izaak Walton League of America.

Mullins said in the Senate, the next step could be debate and a decision on the Senate floor.

But there remains opposition to the bill, also sponsored by Democrats Barabara Boxer, of California, and Max Baucus, of Montana.

Senate Republican Mike Crapo, of Idaho, immediately followed the committee's vote with a press release in which he promised to filibuster the bill, if needed.

"This bill threatens the current Clean Water Act statute and would allow for government regulation of virtually all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries ...," Crapo said in a press statement. He also said the bill would grant federal regulators "new and expanded authority over activities affecting these waters ..."

And, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association: "If this bill passes in Congress, ranchers across the U.S. will be forced to get a permit to continue everyday operations on their own land."

Conservation groups insist the bill is simply a means to regain ground lost in water protection as the result of the two court cases - the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. the Corps of Engineers in 2001 (SWANCC), and Rapanos v. the United States in 2006.

"This is not 'the biggest bureaucratic power grab in a generation,' as some have said, but rather it is about clean water and healthy watersheds for future generations," said Steve Moyer, vice president for Trout Unlimited, in a press release. "Two bad Supreme Court cases have derailed the Clean Water Act, and today's courageous action by the committee gets us a big step closer to getting the law, and all its clean water benefits, back on track."

Another Republican senator, James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, last week called the CWRA the "biggest bureaucratic power grab in a generation."

But groups like TRCP and the National Wildlife Federation say the bill doesn't represent an expansion of jurisdiction, but a return to protections offered by the original Clean Water Act, originally called the federal Water Pollution Control Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972.

Mullins said some opposition to the current legislation seems ideologically based - a "different idea of the role of government."

The "findings" section of the legislation points out a number of reasons for the updated Clean Water Act, including:

� Draining or filling intrastate wetlands and channelizing or filling intrastate streams can cause or exacerbate flooding that causes billions of dollars of damages annually.

� Millions of individuals in the United States enjoy recreational activities that depend on intrastate waters, such as waterfowl hunting, bird watching, fishing, and photography.

� Approximately half of North American migratory birds depend upon or are associated with wetlands and small and intermittent streams, including ephemeral streams.

The amended version of the legislation also contains reference (in the "savings" clause) to several provisions in the original Water Pollution Control Act.

God, help me be the man that my dog Buzz thinks that I am.
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