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Florida Farmers, Environmentalists Spar Over Clean Water Rule

Ryan Benk

Florida farmers are cheering a recently passed federal bill that would block a proposed clean-water rule from taking effect.

The legislation will most certainly be vetoed by the president.

But that hasn't stopped environmentalists from clashing with ranchers and growers over the proposal.

Since it became law more than 40 years ago, the Clean Water Act has been controversial, especially the part about which water the Environmental Protection Agency actually protects.

Courts have ruled opposite ways about which bodies of water are included. So now the EPA hopes to clarify what qualify as protected headwaters that become lakes and rivers. That’s something people need to know if they’re building something or farming.

The Florida Farm Bureau’s Charles Shinn says the extra permits required could burden small farms.

“What the waters of the U.S. rule actually does though is it gives EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers a tremendous amount of power over private property rights throughout the United States, including the state of Florida,” Shinn says.

He also questions how much of an impact they’ll have on cleaning our water supply. The EPA estimates an additional 3 percent of water bodies would be indisputably protected.

But the Florida Wildlife Federation’s Preston Robertson says every body of water, big or small, matters.

“I liken it to Swiss cheese,” Robertson says. “You get some pollutant going into water body A it’s going to go underground and pollute water body B unfortunately.”

Robertson points to ongoing problems with the state’s freshwater springs as perfect examples of the importance of the need for extra water protections.

The federation, along with a litany of other Florida-based groups, sent a letter to Congress urging them to stop trying to nullify the new rule.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s clean water rule is in limbo as a number of challenges are winding their way through court. A federal North Dakota judge struck down the rule in 13 states last August, and federal officials are appealing. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.