DENVER (AP) – The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest attempt to clarify what’s protected under the Clean Water Act is drawing thousands of comments — from conservationists who say it’s about time and others who say the agency is overstepping its authority.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions have created confusion over what qualifies as a U.S. waterway that falls under the act and what falls under the jurisdiction of states, said EPA regional administrator Jim Martin, whose region covers Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Justices trying to come up with an answer in 2006 produced five opinions. That has left EPA staff who respond to spills in some tributaries, for example, spending hours determining whether they can step in when they would rather be cleaning up spills and preventing them, he said.

“It’s a significant regulatory gap that affects water across the country,” Martin said Tuesday.

This spring the EPA proposed guidance spelling out that the Clean Water Act protects small streams and waters that trickle only after spring snowmelts or heavy rains, as long as they have a significant connection to larger bodies of water downstream and could affect their health. It also says waters that cross state borders are protected.

Conservationists say that would restore waters that have been removed from federal protection under previous guidance issued by the EPA following court rulings. Environment Colorado said the draft guidance would clarify protections for more than 65,000 miles of streams in Colorado alone.

David Nickum, executive director of the sportsmen’s group Colorado Trout Unlimited, said the EPA has to be able to protect waters that could pollute rivers downstream if it wants to protect rivers clearly covered in the Clean Water Act. “You can’t protect this without protecting the rest of the watershed,” Nickum said.

However, dozens of members of Congress signed a letter in April saying they fear the EPA is trying to expand the scope of the act without a formal rulemaking process. Some also supported a bill the U.S. House passed this month to strip the EPA of its authority to step in if it feels states’ plans to protect waterways don’t go far enough.

The EPA does eventually plan to craft a formal rule using comments it receives on the draft guidance, and a proposed rule would also go through a public comment period, spokesman Richard Mylott said.

Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation has said it is concerned the EPA’s draft guidance will saddle farmers and ranchers with more regulations, though the EPA has said it’s keeping agricultural exemptions, including those for stock ponds and irrigated land.

On Tuesday, conservationists and kayakers who say their livelihoods depend on pristine rivers presented Martin with 23,887 form letters, petitions and handwritten comments supporting the agency’s draft guidance. The deadline to comment is Sunday.

– By Catherine Tsai, AP Writer


(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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