More than two dozen representatives of Missouri business and agriculture groups met Thursday morning at the Missouri Farm Bureau headquarters, to discuss ways to get the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop trying to expand its authority over water resources.
Last March, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed some regulatory changes to the more than 40-year-old Clean Water Act that they see as an effort to better protect clean water.
The proposed new rule is called "Waters of the U.S."
The Farm Bureau has a campaign called "Ditch the Rule," which can be seen at ditchtherule.fb.org.
"The rule will make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable," the organization explained.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst noted Thursday the organization has received "over 1,700 cards that Farm Bureau members have signed, asking the EPA to withdraw the rule."
But the EPA has its own website, countering opponents' claims.
Called "Ditch the Myth," the website says "this page addresses concerns and misconceptions about the proposal ... to protect clean water. The proposed rule clarifies protection under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands that form the foundation of the nation's water resources."
That's not how the opponents see it.
"We're not fighting about real streams," said Don Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Washington, D.C., office - who spoke to Thursday's Jefferson City meeting by telephone. "I think most of us in this room have a real appreciation for water quality, and we probably have an appreciation for what our industries have, and do, both voluntarily and regulatory to comply with the Clean Water Act.
"What this proposal does is put us in a position to start arguing about land use issues, because EPA's proposal is so broad that it can regulate where water runs when it rains."
U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said: "Obviously it's an overreach by EPA, to get themselves in a position to have more control over the businesses, the farms and our lives as a whole."
He told reporters after the meeting: "It defies description whenever you start thinking about the federal government trying to control every single drop of water, basically. ... This is one of the most scary power grabs there has, ever, been."
Luetkemeyer noted the Clean Water law uses the words "hydrologically connected," and he fears most attorneys would work to "hydrologically connect every single body of water, every single stream, every single pond, every single ditch through these words to be able, then, to control what goes on on the land."
He told of a House Small Business Committee meeting this year, where the EPA's No. 2 administrator was "trying to brush us off" and couldn't answer basic questions about defining a specific problem the agency was trying to solve, or of knowing what the ultimate costs might be.
Both Luetkemeyer and Hurst talked about meetings where EPA officials wouldn't, or couldn't, answer direct questions about specific problems opponents see with the proposal.
Ashley McDonald, a Missouri native who is an environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the proposed rule would affect four more kinds of water than currently are regulated.
The proposal defines seven categories of the "waters of the U.S.," she said. "The three major category changes are tributaries, adjacent waters and the "other' waters categories.
"These are the three areas that they have basically said that everything is in."
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, wasn't part of Thursday's meeting but spent some time last month visiting several Missouri communities and talking about problems he sees with the proposed EPA rules changes.
McDonald said the language "doesn't look too bad when you first look at it, until you get into the preamble language and the definitions."
The EPA's website said the claims aren't true.
"The proposed rule actually reduces regulation of ditches because for the first time it would exclude ditches that are constructed through dry lands and don't have water year-round," the agency explained. "All historical exclusions and exemptions for agriculture are preserved. ...
"The Clean Water Act only regulates the pollution and destruction of U.S. waters. The proposed rule would not regulate land or land use."
Those attending the Farm Bureau meeting Thursday noted the EPA has extended the comment period on the new rule.
And Parrish reported the Small Business Administration has raised questions about it.
"I think that's a game-changer, because it says is it's more than just about the content of the rule - it's about the process that the EPA is using," Parrish said. "And I think it validates some of the concerns that your national organization has been trying to echo in Washington."