WASHINGTON — Despite White House objections, the Senate voted for a resolution Wednesday to scrap new federal rules to protect smaller streams, tributaries and wetlands from development and pollution.
Senators voted 53-44 in favor of a “resolution of disapproval,” a measure that would void the regulations if also passed by the House and signed by the president. The White House has already said it would veto the resolution.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked a separate bill that would have required the agencies to withdraw and rewrite the rules. The House had passed similar legislation.
The Obama administration says the rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May would safeguard drinking water for 117 million Americans. In its veto threat, the White House said that more than 1 in 3 Americans get their drinking water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that are at risk of pollution from upstream sources.
Republicans and some rural Democrats say the regulations are costly, confusing and a government power grab, giving federal regulators unprecedented control of small bodies of water on private land.
“This rule harms not only landowners, but our entire agriculture industry in Georgia,” Sen. Johnny Isakson said in a news release. “I applaud the Senate passage of Sen. (Joni) Ernst’s resolution.”
Ernst of Iowa is the Republican sponsor of the resolution.
“I’ve heard from constituents across the state of Iowa who have grave concerns with the ambiguity of this rule,” Ernst said. “They are holding off on making conservation improvements to their land, for fear of being later found out of compliance.”
Federal courts have already put the regulations on hold as they consider a number of lawsuits against the water regulations.
“We are disappointed that Georgia senators have voted to disapprove this important and needed rule,” said Jason Ulseth, the lead river protection advocate and spokesman for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
He dismissed the land grab argument.
“This rule simply clarifies what waters are deserving of protection … and is critically needed to help EPA do its job and protect our waterways,” Ulseth said.
The rules clarify which smaller waterways fall under federal protection after two Supreme Court rulings left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain. Those decisions in 2001 and 2006 left 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands without clear federal protection, according to the EPA, causing confusion for landowners and government officials.
The EPA says the new rules would force a permitting process only if a business or landowner took steps that would pollute or destroy the affected waters — those with a “direct and significant” connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected. For example, that could include tributaries that show evidence of flowing water.
Farm and business groups are among the rules’ chief opponents, and more than half the states have sued the government in an attempt to block them. Officials from states including Georgia, New Mexico and Wisconsin have suggested the regulations could be harmful to farmers and landowners who might have to pay for extra permits, face work delays or redesign their property to manage small bodies of water on their private land.
“The last thing that (farmers) need is another mandate, another long reach of the federal arm of government down on their land to try to control every drop of water that falls on their property,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a video released by Isakson and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. “That’s why I’m so adamantly opposed to and deeply concerned about this outreach of the federal government.”
The EPA has argued the criticism is overblown. Since the rules were originally proposed last year, the agency has been working to clear up some misconceptions, like some critics’ assertions that average backyard puddles would be regulated. Current exemptions from the Clean Water Act for farming practices, including plowing, seeding and the movement of livestock, among other things, will continue.