WASHINGTON — Jim Chilton, a fifth-generation rancher from southeast Arizona, testified July 22 on behalf of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council during a House Committee on Small Business hearing on the Clean Water Restoration Act (C.W.R.A.). He explained how the proposed act would threaten ranchers and farmers, as well as small businesses, small communities, forestry, mining, and manufacturing on private and federally-managed lands.
"This is essentially a limitless national land and water use control effort that will regulate every activity in a wet area in the nation," he testified. "It’s nothing more than a ‘nice-sounding’ name which masks an economically and culturally devastating power grab, flagrantly violating both the spirit and the words of the U.S. Constitution."
Last month, the proposed act passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Mr. Chilton said it would drastically expand the Clean Water Act (C.W.A.), giving the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency control over all watersheds in the U.S., and all "activities affecting these waters." Since all land in the nation is within a watershed, it means that the Corps and E.P.A. would have land-use control over farmers’ and ranchers’ property and other businesses not currently under the jurisdiction of the C.W.A.
This new federal jurisdiction would include hundreds of millions of isolated intrastate pools, stock water ponds, springs, small lakes, depressions filled with water on an intermittent basis, drainage and irrigation ditches, irrigated areas that would otherwise be dry, sloughs and damp places located on farms and ranches that have no nexus with any navigable waters.
Family ranchers and farmers may be required under the act to obtain permits from the E.P.A. or Corps before conducting common, everyday operations, like watering their cattle or farming their land.
At present, the federal government is already struggling to handle a backlog of 15,000 to 20,000 existing section 404 permit requests. The average applicant for an individual Clean Water Act permit spends 788 days and $271,596 in complying with the current process, and the average applicant for a nationwide permit currently spends 313 days and $28,915 — not counting the substantial costs of mitigation or design changes, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Considering U.S. farmers and ranchers own and manage approximately 666.4 million acres of the 1.938 billion acres of the contiguous U.S. land mass, the massive new permitting requirements under this act would be an unmanageable burden for the government, and could literally bring farming operations to a standstill.
Mr. Chilton shared from personal experience about a time his family ranch had to apply for a 404 permit to construct a road across a dry wash on their private property. The regulatory approval process took more than a year and cost his family nearly $40,000.
"Federal agencies have ample authority under existing law to protect water quality, and it’s essential that the partnership between the federal and state levels of government be maintained so states can continue to have the essential flexibility to do their own land and water use planning," Mr. Chilton said.