WILLIAMSTOWN -- The federal Clean Water Act, passed 42 years ago -- together with the Clean Air Act -- changed the attitude in the United States toward the use of our re sourc es. Instead of being able to do essentially whatever we wanted with the stream that passed nearby, from then on polluting required a permit and was regulated. Now Environmental Protection Agency Admini stra tor Gina McCarthy has proposed a rule that would, in her view, clarify the legislation but, in the eyes of some farmers, would be a massive "land grab."

The Act seeks to protect "waters of the United States." While there has been broad agreement that large, navigable rivers were covered, since day one what other "waters" were intended has been controversial. After two Supreme Court decisions muddied the waters and congressional ef forts to clarify were defeated, struggles by the EPA to combat pollution have been frustrated by the definition if what bodies of water it can control.

McCarthy intends to end the controversy, which has stymied the EPA's enforcement activity in hundreds of cases. The rule, proposed last March and open for public comment until Oct. 20, defines the terms "tributaries," "flood plains" and "wetlands," and asserts that they are subject to its authority.

Specifically, polluting a body of water, even if only flowing intermittently in the spring or other times, if it is connected to a river, would be subject to permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.


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The EPA estimates that some two million stream miles in the continental U.S. are classified as intermittent.

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The American Farm Bureau Federation forecasts EPA jur is diction over irrigation ditches, watering ponds and puddles. AFBF President Bob Stall man calls it "the biggest federal land grab -- in terms of power over land use -- that we've seen to date."

The organized farmer's reaction goes under the slogan "Ditch the Rule." The organization's website maintains that the Clean Water Act was only intended to cover navigable rivers; that protection, if necessary, for smaller water bodies rests with the states.

McCarthy points out that the pollution in an intermittent stream ultimately gets to a river if there is a downstream connection. Intermittent streams have always been covered by the act, she maintains, and farm exemptions would continue, including for stock watering, ditches in dry land, cattle movement and erosion control.

She and her aides have been touring the Midwest this summer in an effort to soften the opposition. She says that clarifying the issue will help farmers -- and the EPA -- by ending uncertainties.

EPA officials call the Farm Bureau's campaign, which has raised considerable commotion on line and in the press, a bundle of misinformation in an attempt to scare farmers by implying that routine farm activities would be curtailed. The opposition conforms to Re publican efforts to depict the Obama administration as circum venting democratic processes.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.