- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Plans to rush through the House of Representatives legislation that would expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, the main tool for keeping the nation’s waters clean, have proved to be too ambitious.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, last week shelved his goal of introducing and passing his water legislation before Congress goes on vacation Friday. The Minnesota Democrat instead will introduce his legislation, called the Clean Water Restoration Act, next year.

Mr. Oberstar told InsideEPA that “passing the bill in 2009 was our goal, but we still don’t have a common agenda with the Senate, and I still have to work on House members. … My goal is to get on it early in the next session.”

After The Washington Times reported Dec. 4 that Mr. Oberstar planned a quick and quiet effort to pass the legislation, 28 Republican lawmakers from Western states came out against the measure. They said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that they would oppose any legislation that included Mr. Oberstar’s proposal.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed its legislation in June with no Republican support.

Mr. Oberstar’s announcement gives opponents of the measure more time to rally opposition, said Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Western Caucus, which wrote the letter.

Mr. Oberstar’s bill, which is expected to be similar to water legislation he introduced previously, would allow the Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers, to protect all of the nation’s waterways. EPA polices only “navigable” waters, those large enough for ship traffic. Supporters of the measure say two Supreme Court cases significantly limited the scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The water bill faces an uncertain future in the House. When Mr. Oberstar introduced his bill in 2007, it had 176 Democratic co-sponsors. The bill, if enacted, would give EPA authority over bodies of water as small as creeks and ditches along the roadside.

Specialists say the law also would open the way to government regulation of 20 million acres of the nation’s so-called isolated wetlands and the 59 percent of the nation’s streams that do not flow year-round. These are two types of water that now are largely exempt from federal oversight.

As a result of the potential expansion of federal power, a group including powerful lobbies and businesses has formed the Waters Advocacy Coalition to fight the legislation.

The coalition says the bill would increase red tape for developers and drive up business costs. In addition, the group says, the bill would pre-empt states’ regulatory authority.

Given the short time Mr. Oberstar has to pass the bill in 2009, Republicans feared that his measure would be tacked onto another bill and passed in the session’s closing hours. Lobbyists expected that the water bill could be attached to the spending bill for defense programs, an unrelated bill with strong support.

Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the caucus, opposed Mr. Oberstar’s bill each time it was discussed. Miss Subbotin said Mr. Bishop will fight it again next year.

“This is not the first time Congressman Bishop has opposed the bill, and if it comes back in January, this clearly will not be the congressman’s last time,” she said.

A spokesman would not confirm Mr. Oberstar’s comments to InsideEPA.