Weekly Column

Oct 23 2014

A Word on Water

For well over a year, I have been discussing my concerns with the administration’s attempts to expand federal control over water in Nebraska and all across the country. A wide-ranging coalition of Nebraskans has joined forces to spread the word regarding the negative and far-reaching impacts this rule will have on the lives of all Nebraskans.

To assert greater federal control over state-owned resources, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) have proposed changing the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act. Making this definition broader – beyond “navigable” waters – will extend Washington’s regulatory reach over almost any water, from farm ditches to residential ponds.

I’ve led a number of efforts to enhance public input on the rule and have pushed for more answers directly from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. I’m also supporting legislation to scrap the rule all together. 

Most recently, I joined a group of 24 senators in a letter to EPA and the Corps outlining how the proposed rule displaces state and local officials in their primary role in environmental protection. We also discussed how the rule imposes restrictions and uncertainty on private property owners. These same points were recently underscored in an analysis conducted by Mike Linder, who served as the director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) from 1999-2013.

In his analysis, Linder wrote, “This rule would impose a blanket jurisdictional determination over thousands of acres of private property. The effect would be to impose unnecessary property restrictions and uncertainty… In addition, the federal encroachment of what is now a state delegated program runs counter to the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ which is a tenant of federal environmental programs.”

Linder’s analysis focused on the negative impact the WOTUS proposal would have on Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers – dictating land practices and undermining cooperative conservation efforts. While many have been focused on the harm the rule would cause to agriculture – the backbone of Nebraska’s economy – it’s important to realize that the rule will also have a dramatic effect on many others, including road builders, home builders, manufacturers, and even cities and counties.

Omaha is a perfect example. Many Nebraskans – particularly those with rising water bills in Douglas and Sarpy counties – have closely followed news about wastewater sewer upgrades. Under their existing Clean Water Act authority, the EPA and the Corps are forcing the City of Omaha to invest in a $2 billion project to develop a “combined sewer overflow” plan. 

The Public Works Director for the City of Omaha recently stated in public comments submitted to EPA and the Corps that, “Omaha has been increasing rates significantly to address this mandate, and the rates will become a burden on many citizens within the wastewater service area.”

Keep in mind that this is all under EPA’s existing authority. Now, with the proposed WOTUS rule, EPA is trying to broaden its statutory control over even more area, meaning more time and resources must be spent by state and local officials to obtain more federal permits. Omaha’s Public Works Director explained that complying with these permits “is already extremely cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive. Expanding the geographic jurisdiction of the federal government increases the likelihood that more permits would be required.”

It’s possible that, under the proposed WOTUS definition, these permits will be needed for simple, routine maintenance of Omaha’s water infrastructure. The bottom line for the residents of Sarpy and Douglas counties: another unfunded mandate by the federal government, with Nebraskans stuck footing the bill. 

It’s not just Omahans – it’s all Nebraskans who will be impacted by this unprecedented federal overreach. We will all pay for the increased costs, whether it’s through our water bills or higher prices for goods and services.

Water is a treasured resource in Nebraska – one that we take great care to protect. The Obama Administration’s WOTUS proposal would only jeopardize the operation of our state’s current water protection programs and the stewardship efforts of private landowners. Thank you for taking part in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.

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