Bill defining U.S. regulatory reach clears Senate panel

Legislation aimed at clarifying the scope of federal wetlands regulation cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by a 12-7 margin today amid strong Republican dissent.

The bill, S. 787, would amend the Clean Water Act, replacing "navigable waters" with "waters of the United States," a move Democrats say would restore the law's original intent of protecting all U.S. waters, including non-navigable wetlands.

Narrow Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 tightened the interpretation of the law and sparked widespread confusion among federal, state and local wetland regulators.

The committee replaced the bill's text with a compromise crafted by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that includes language to protect existing exemptions for some agricultural operations.

"My amendment restores the Clean Water Act to the way it was in 2001 -- no more, no less," Baucus said.


But Republicans say removing the word "navigable" broadens the intended scope of the Clean Water Act and will lead to burdensome regulations on farmers, developers and other industry stakeholders.

"This bill vastly expands federal control of private property," said ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "The very premise of this bill is to override the state's fundamental right to oversee waters within its borders."

The measure failed to draw a Republican vote. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and David Vitter (R-La.) offered 10 amendments, all of which were defeated.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) plans to place a "hold" on the measure, his staff said.

In other action, the committee approved five water bills. Approved by voice vote:

  • S. 878, which would double the authorized grant money for state and local government programs to monitor pollution in coastal waters and the Great Lakes. A companion bill has already passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
  • S. 937, which would require sewage treatment operators to monitor sewage overflows and to report them to public health officials, public water systems and the community.
  • S. 690, which would authorize an increase in funding to protect neotropical migratory birds.
  • S. 479, which would reauthorize an initiative to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
  • S. 933, which would reauthorize programs to address remediation of contaminated sediment in the Great Lakes.

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