A top Environmental Protection Agency official visited Baltimore Thursday to make the case for a new federal rule spelling out what streams and wetlands enjoy legal protection from development or disturbance.
Nancy K. Stoner, acting assistant EPA administrator for water, joined activists from Environment Maryland at Fells Point to defend the recently proposed "Waters of the U.S." rule, which has come under fire from home builders, farmers and other industry groups.
Stoner said the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jointly drafted the rule, which she said was meant to clear up legal confusion left by a pair of Supreme Court decisions about when landowners need federal permits to disturb streams and wetlands.
The rule should "shore up" protection for seasonal streams, Stoner said. Those periodically dry channels, which make up nearly 20 percent of Maryland's streams, often form the headwaters of rivers that provide drinking water or flow into larger water bodies like the Chesapeake Bay.
"You can't protect the big waterways," Stoner said, "if you don't protect the headwaters."
Builders and industry groups have denounced the rule, saying it represents a massive regulatory overreach by the federal government. Bob Stallman of the American Farm Bureau Federation issued a statement calling it a "serious threat to farmers, ranchers and other landowners," which could restrict what they can do with their land.
"Under EPA’s proposed new rule, waters – even ditches – are regulated even if they are miles from the nearest ‘navigable’ waters," Stallman said.
But Stoner said critics are exaggerating the impact of the rule. It would keep existing exemptions for agricultural activities, she noted. The new rule ought to make it easier for landowners to tell when they need to get a permit, she argued.
An analysis by EPA of past cases indicated the new rule would have prompted different decisions in less than 3 percent of them.
Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said her group does not believe the new rule goes far enough in protecting wetlands far from streams, and that the exemptions given to farming now are too broad. But she called the rule "a great first step."
The agencies will soon begin taking public comment on the rule for 90 days, with plans to finalize it sometime afterward. For more info, go here.