Why a Clean Water Rule May – Or May Not – Be a Big Issue in Minnesota’s First Congressional District
By Walker Orenstein
As farmers in southern Minnesota grapple with President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war — testing the alliance between the agriculture industry and the GOP that substantially benefited Trump in 2016 — First Congressional District Republican candidate Jim Hagedorn is making sure to showcase the administration’s industry-friendly policies as part of his effort to persuade voters to send him to Congress.
That means highlighting support for mining in northern Minnesota, including the recent decision to end a study of potential impact from copper-nickel mining on the Superior National Forest and the neighboring Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
But it also includes touting a Trump administration effort that hits much closer to home in southern Minnesota: the rollback of a 2015 update to the Clean Water Act that expanded protections to small bodies of water feeding larger rivers and lakes — a policy that happened to be one of President Barack Obama’s signature environmental initiatives.
“It’s one of the biggest regulatory issues in agriculture,” Hagedorn said. “I bring it up all the time.”
A fight over water protections
The Obama EPA’s 2015 rule change has a long backstory. It starts more than 40 years ago, when Congress first approved the Clean Water Act. That original bill gave the federal government jurisdiction over the “waters of the United States.”
Ever since, people have not stopped arguing what that actually means, and how broad the government’s authority is under the law. Does it apply only to lakes and rivers and water that feeds directly into them? Or does the law cover even small wetlands, bogs, streams and other isolated or seasonal bits of water?
Supreme Court rulings on the matter have never quite cleared things up, so under Obama, the EPA stepped in to make firm — and far-reaching — guidelines on what could be considered a Water of the United States. John Kolb, a St. Cloud-based attorney who focuses on water and natural resources regulations, says a long study conducted by the EPA used to justify its rule boiled down to: “All water is connected.”
Many farmers took issue with the decision, however. Beyond their general opposition to government expansion, industry groups said the rule change meant they were going to be targeted and penalized for standard agricultural practices. Kirby Hettver, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said farmers out West were found in violation of Obama-era Clean Water Act “just for tilling their soil.”
He was referring to a case that began in 2012 in which the government ordered a farmer in Northern California, John Duarte, to pay millions in fines and penalties after it said he broke the law by “deep ripping” his field to plant wheat without a permit, and disturbing seasonal wetlands called vernal pools that are notably home to fairy shrimp. (While there are plenty of agricultural exemptions to the Clean Water Act, the government said the field wasn’t subject to them since it hadn’t been plowed in decades. The case was eventually settled.)
While Duarte’s legal saga started before Obama’s update to the Clean Water Act, it became a rallying cry for conservatives worried about government overreach, a charge that found a sympathetic reception within the Trump administration. Earlier this year, the EPA withdrew the rule and is now in the process of writing a more narrow definition of which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act.
Effect in Minnesota
And yet, whether any of this means much for Minnesota remains a topic of debate. One reason is that despite the Trump EPA’s withdrawal of Obama’s Waters of the United States rule, litigation has reinstituted the Obama rule in more than 20 states, including Minnesota.
For another, Minnesota administers much of the Clean Water Act for itself, and it adopted its own stringent definition of protected waters decades ago, said Jean Coleman, an attorney for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In fact, Minnesota’s rule is far broader than the Obama-era water rule, and includes everything from irrigation and drainage systems to all “accumulations of water, surface or underground, natural or artificial, public or private,” within the state, she said.
“The definition of ‘Waters of the State’ is extremely expansive and it captures all waters that would be under the Obama definition of ‘Waters of the U.S.’ or under any other definition of ‘Waters of the U.S.’ because it is so expansive,” Coleman said.
She added: “I don’t think you can think of anything that’s liquid water that falls from the sky that’s not a water of the state.”
The state also has its own tough laws protecting wetlands and more, said Scott Strand, senior attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Those laws blunt any given update or reversal of the federal Waters of the United States rule. “It will have a more dramatic impact in states that don’t have vigorous state clean water protections,” Strand said of the changes to the Waters of the United States rule.