St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell's June 12 commentary in the News Tribune on the subject of water quality missed the mark by a mile. Commissioner Jewell claimed clean-water protections are being lost. His solution was broader authority for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the 1972 federal Water Pollution Control Act.
Since passage of that act, the EPA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers gradually have stretched the limits of federal jurisdiction over waters and adjacent lands. But in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of local governments that isolated wetlands were not subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. In 2006, the high court again ruled against the EPA in a Michigan landowner's case involving a wetland more than 10 miles from the nearest navigable water. And earlier this year, in a stunning 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against the EPA in the case of an Idaho couple who wanted to build a modest home on their property. The couple sued after the EPA issued a cease-and-desist order and began levying heavy fines of $37,500 per day.
Minnesota's former 8th District congressman, James Oberstar, attempted to "clarify" federal jurisdiction by introducing the Clean Water Restoration Act. If passed, his bill would have given the federal government jurisdiction over all waters of the U.S., including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), playa lakes, prairie potholes, mudflats, sand flats, ponds, wetlands, meadows and sloughs. Oberstar's bill attempted to go even further by granting jurisdiction over all "activities affecting these waters," including land use and atmospheric deposition.
Oberstar was chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (the committee with sole jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act) but failed to get his bill approved by his own committee. That was due to the lack of support from the many Democrats who forced a hearing on the bill. In testimony, Reed Hopper of the Pacific Legal Foundation said, "This bill stretches the limits of federal powers to an extreme not matched by any other law, probably in the history of this country."
Polls show the vast majority of the residents of northern Minnesota do not support expanded authority by the EPA and other federal agencies. In fact, a strong, state, water-rights statute was approved by the Minnesota Legislature after being authored by prominent Democrats from northern Minnesota, including former House Speaker Irv Anderson, former Sen. Doug Johnson, former Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bob Lessard, current Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, and Rep. Tom Rukavina.
Moreover, Commissioner Jewell appears to be out of step with his own colleagues. The National Association of Counties and the Association of Minnesota Counties both have strongly opposed expanded authority for the EPA and Corps of Engineers under the 1972 act. In addition, almost every segment of the American economy has gone on record in opposition to the EPA's unprecedented federal power grab.
In a blatant attempt to circumvent Congress and the courts, the EPA is attempting, through "guidance" documents, to implement by executive fiat what couldn't be accomplished through the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Fortunately, there is strong bipartisan opposition to the EPA's proposal and tactics. There are no less than five bills in Congress designed to curb the regulatory appetite of a federal agency that is clearly out of control and operating with little regard for the rights and well-being of average Americans.
This issue is not about the environment. It's about governance. Solutions to water-quality and other environmental problems are not to be found in Washington, D.C., but closer to home at the state and local level. It has been demonstrated in northern Minnesota and elsewhere across the country that local solutions are better, faster and cheaper. Instead of top-down, command-and-control "solutions" by the EPA and other federal agencies, what is needed is a
bottoms-up, grass-roots approach among people of common sense and good will.
Don Parmeter is a native northern Minnesotan who lives now in St. Paul. He was co-chairman of the National Water and Conservation Alliance, which was set up in 2009 to defeat the Oberstar-Feingold federal water bill. He currently is leading an effort to reform the modern environmental movement.