EPA's "Waters Of The U.S." Source Of Frustration For Farmers, Ranchers

May 29, 2014

Acting Administrator for the EPA's Office of Water gets a tour from local water officials and the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The group visited different sites along the Frying Pan River.
Acting Administrator for the EPA's Office of Water gets a tour from local water officials and the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The group visited different sites along the Frying Pan River.
Credit Marci Krivonen

A top administrator in the EPA’s Office of Water was in the Roaring Fork Valley on Wednesday, touring local rivers and drumming up interest for a proposed Clean Water Act rule. Acting Administrator Nancy Stoner says the so-called “Waters of the U.S.” rulemaking clarifies what types of waterbodies get federal protection. Before she discussed the rule with local residents, she traveled up the Frying Pan river. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen was along for the ride, and filed this report.

Acting EPA Administrator Nancy Stoner lucked out on the weather during a recent tour of the Frying Pan River. While rain and snow aren’t uncommon this time of year, she got sunshine.

Rick Lafaro: "Just to give you a little background on the Roaring Fork Conservancy - we’re a watershed action and education organization."

The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy organized the tour and stopped just below Ruedi Reservoir, where anglers dotted the river below the dam. The Conservancy’s director Rick Lafaro went over an economic study they’re doing.

EPA Administrator Nancy Stoner says the "Waters of the U.S." rulemaking would better protect tributaries, like those that feed the Frying Pan River.
EPA Administrator Nancy Stoner says the "Waters of the U.S." rulemaking would better protect tributaries, like those that feed the Frying Pan River.
Credit Marci Krivonen

"This is the economic engine for Basalt. People come to Basalt to fish the Frying Pan river, period. Of course, businesses in town benefit. One of the most frequently referenced documents on our website is our economic study and it’s ten years old, so hopefully we will see those numbers increase," he says.

Water in the Roaring Fork Valley IS valuable - whether it’s bringing anglers to town, providing rapids for rafters or irrigating farmlands. Stoner says a proposed rule called “Waters of the U.S.” aims to ensure water is clean. Both the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are behind it.

"And, it’s really to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act, to make sure that stream systems like this one, are protected...that the headwaters are protected, so that the streams are protected."

The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, when the country was grappling with dirty water.

"There were very serious pollution issues at that time and, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve made a lot of progress, but in order to make sure that the water bodies continue to be protected, we need to have that clarity," says Stoner.

Within the Act, there’s a single definition for “Waters of the US.” The waters that fall under that, receive federal protections and are subject to more regulations. The proposed rule doesn’t protect any new types of waterbodies. Instead, it clarifies which ones receive protection with a focus on streams, wetlands and headwaters. Stoner says a set of Supreme Court cases muddied the waters regarding protection of these waterbodies.

Nancy Stoner is a top official in the Office of Water at the federal Environmental Protection Agency. She visited with local residents about the "Waters of the U.S." rulemaking on Wednesday.
Nancy Stoner is a top official in the Office of Water at the federal Environmental Protection Agency. She visited with local residents about the "Waters of the U.S." rulemaking on Wednesday.
Credit Marci Krivonen

"When there’s a spill, when there’s sewage and toxins, you don’t want that to flow into headwaters and into waters below, that’s what we’re trying to prevent. There definitely have been cases where there were spills in headwaters, where we couldn’t address those because of lack of clarity of the protections of the Clean Water Act."

Under the rule, those wanting to do work, like development, alongside a “Water of the U.S.” would have to get a permit. And, pollutants allowed in the water would be regulated.

Stoner says it’s not a big change from what’s already law but, it has stirred up lots of controversy, particularly in the agricultural community.

"If you’re going to expand Congress’ original intent, it probably needs to come from Congress," says cattle rancher Bill McKee.

He has many concerns, including potentially more regulation over what he calls “standard agricultural practices” like spraying vegetation near ditches.

"If your neighbor downstream saw you with a sprayer spraying, (he might say) ‘Hey! Those are waters of the U.S. You can’t spray a chemical.'"

The rule maintains exemptions already in place for agriculture. Still, Tom Harrington says there’s too much ambiguity. He runs a ranch west of Carbondale. And, he’s unsure whether the big ditch on his property falls into the “Waters of the U.S.” category.

"It just seems like it’s very unclear. As much as they say they want to clarify this, to me it’s still very unclear about, do we qualify for those exemptions."

Congressman Scott Tipton calls the rulemaking a “federal water grab” that’s flawed. Still, the EPA’s Nancy Stoner says her agency’s gone to great pains to accommodate farmers and ranchers.

"We think this is actually good for them. We’re working really hard to make sure that agricultural uses are protected, and the waters are protected."

The comment period for the rulemaking ends on July 21st. Yesterday’s visit from the EPA is part of an effort to educate the public about the rule and clear up what they say is "misinformation."

To find out how to comment on the rule, click on this link and scroll to the bottom of the page.