Clean Water Act 'fix' has major ramifications for state


Can Nevada water wars get any worse? Unfortunately, yes.

We don't have endless streams, rivers and estuaries across the desert plain, so our water wars are legendary. At least, though, the fights are within our own borders given that Nevada is the sole authority over how our water is managed, allocated and distributed.

But that may not last.

The Clean Water Restoration Act pending in Congress right now would institute sweeping new changes to the federal Clean Water Act. Proponents say the changes are needed to "clarify the intent" of the law, but in removing just a single word from the text of the act, advocates of this plan will effectively force the Environmental Protection Agency to claim jurisdiction over every pond, tributary and ditch (that's dry ditches to us) nationwide.

As we know, controlling water is controlling land in Nevada.

The act has already been introduced and passed through committee on the fast track to the president's desk. If signed into law, the Clean Water Act would be amended to exclude the term "navigable" from the line of the law that gives the EPA regulatory authority over all "navigable waters." Take away that word and what is left is the EPA beginning to regulate all waters of the United States. Whether you are from north or south; for or against water pipelines to Las Vegas or other similar projects; a hay farmer, cattle rancher, casino owner, developer, small-business owner or a homeowner, your costs and regulatory headaches will rise.

Obviously, large, small or intermittent water bodies don't stop when they reach the state line. That's why the Clean Water Act was passed: to institute much-needed protections designed to keep our waterways clean and safe, while setting clear lines of protocol and procedure among states when it came to the business of interstate commerce.

I don't know much about the ditches on your property, but the ones on mine don't have a whole lot to do with interstate commerce. Regardless, under the new law, we'd have to ask for the EPA's permission before attempting to fill a ditch, divert it or build anything anywhere near it. As long as it had water in it at one time -- it doesn't matter the amount or duration -- the removal of the word "navigable" from the existing law means the EPA would regulate it like it were the Colorado River. We all know how much Nevada has argued over Colorado River water.

Waiting a couple of years and paying a couple thousand dollars (with time, more) for an EPA permit to put sand in or divert a dry Nevada ditch or depression might be more of an annoyance than anything else.

But the impact that the EPA regulation over all waters of the United States will have on our state's economy promises to be a lot more severe. A few thousand is a lot of money to farmers, ranchers, small businesses or miners given the already high cost of compliance and regulations of all sorts, especially in hard economic times.

I doubt most lawmakers in Washington, D.C., fully considered that such a seemingly small policy change to the Clean Water Act could so severely impact the driest state in the union.

Nonetheless, Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign and our House delegation must fully consider the implications to Nevada of giving the EPA carte blanche authority over our land through intense regulation of our water.

The federal government already owns 86 percent of Nevada. Can't we at least agree that Nevadans should have the authority to regulate the remaining 14 percent?

Liz Arnold is a natural resources policy advocate involved in Western land and water issues. She writes from Eureka.

 

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