Florida Republican leaders are yet again making outlandish claims to torpedo federal rules for protecting the water supply. Appearing together last month, U.S. Rep. Steven Southerland of Panama City and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam blasted a federal proposal for identifying wetlands as a power grab by bullying bureaucrats that would seriously harm the state's businesses and homeowners. Great sound bite — but that is not the case.
The proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers would establish more clearly which waters deserve protection under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Two U.S. Supreme Court opinions have for the past decade clouded the issue of whether the federal law applies only to navigable waters. The federal agencies proposed the new rule in an effort to address legitimate concerns by state and local governments, businesses and other groups. Continuing to leave them in legal limbo is irresponsible.
That didn't stop Southerland from pointing his finger at "big government bullies" who were out to create more costs and uncertainty in the workplace. He has filed legislation that is headed to the House floor that would let states — not the federal government — determine which wetlands deserve protection. Southerland proclaimed that local officials are better suited to make these decisions than "D.C. bureaucrats a thousand miles away." Putnam chimed in by denouncing federal "overreach," suggesting that even "mushy" lawns would be a problem.
These claims are ridiculous. The federal rule merely clarifies what streams and wetlands would be protected. It does not give the agencies more power, redefine farming, or apply to any waters that historically have not been covered. The measure expressly exempts waste treatment ponds, upland ditches, artificial lakes and ornamental lagoons from regulation. It doesn't change the exemptions that farmers and ranchers already enjoy, infringe on property rights or apply in cases when rainfall saturates lawns and fields. In some cases, the rule could actually broaden the definition of what waters are exempt. Decisions about Florida wetlands permits are made in the Army Corps' offices in Tampa and elsewhere around the state, not in Washington. And the EPA estimates that the marginal costs of implementing the rule would generate about double the return in benefits to public health, flood control and the economy.
Florida Republicans used the same tactic of misinformation several years ago on behalf of the state's biggest polluters to fight the federal government over clean water standards. They had the wrong allegiance then and they have the wrong allegiance now. Florida's congressional delegation should be the last ones urging Congress to weaken a law that protects some of this state's most precious resources.