ATLANTA — Georgia’s U.S. senators are fighting a proposed rule on water regulation that they say amounts to a federal power grab, yet environmentalists say it only clarifies existing regulations.
Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss announced Monday they are joining with other Republicans in the Senate in cosponsoring legislation to halt implementation of a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers known as the “waters of the United States” rule. In it, the two agencies spell out which types of streams, lakes and marshes fall under federal regulation.
The Constitution gives the federal government jurisdiction over so-called navigable waters, or those deep enough to float a commercial barge, like the Savannah River. It was originally a way the Founding Fathers devised to prevent trade wars between states.
The Supreme Court has said the Clean Water Act of 1972 requires the federal government to keep the navigable waterways clean by regulating secondary streams that flow into them. In a 2006 decision, the court split over exactly where to draw the line on certain types of wetlands.
The EPA and Corps issued their proposed rule based on one interpretation of that ’06 decision, but the Senate Republicans and farm groups rely on a different interpretation in fighting it. They say the proposal would give activists a powerful tool to delay or prevent development and boost costs for property owners.
“The EPA wants to regulate not just ‘navigable’ waters, but every water,” Isakson said. “This is yet another overstep by the administration that will harm not only landowners but our entire agriculture industry in Georgia.”
The Georgia Farm Bureau is asking its members to write the senators and members of Congress to join the opposition to the rule. Chambliss, as the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he’s in their corner.
They argue that the rule would make any flowing water subject to federal oversight.
Environmental groups say it’s a stretch to say all flowing water would be included.
“This is not an expansion. It’s a clarification,” said Tony Bonitatibus, chief advocate for the Savannah Riverkeeper organization.
Business owners don’t like ambiguity, she said, because it makes planning difficult.
Jud Turner, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the cost of enforcing an expansion of regulation is another issue for the state. But he acknowledged that the Supreme Court left the issue muddled.
“There’s no question in my mind that clarity is needed,” he said.
S. Aaron McWhorter, a member of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, is concerned about the practical application of any expansion of federal oversight.
“I’ll just comment that all of us need to realize the Corps can’t keep up with what they’re doing now,” he said. “How in the world are they gonna do what they think they’re gonna do? It takes years to get anything out of them now.”
Reporter Erica Techo contributed.
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