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Debate over Clean Water Rule comes to the Chesapeake

The Gunpowder River in Baltimore County, just downstream of Prettyboy Resevoir. (FILE)

The Gunpowder River in Baltimore County, just downstream of Prettyboy Resevoir. (FILE)

In the midst of a Congressional debate over the Obama administration’s extension of clean water regulations, local environmental activists and business owners gathered Wednesday to celebrate the Clean Water Rule’s impact on Maryland’s harbors and waterways.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers jointly proposed a precursor to the rule rule last spring, and the finalized Clean Water Rule was issued on May 27 this year. The rule is intended to restore the federal government’s authority, through the EPA, to limit pollution in smaller waterways such as streams and tributaries.

The regulation would have wide-reaching influence in Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay is a hub of economic and recreational activity and is fed by the kinds of smaller headwaters that the rule would subject to additional oversight.

But the rule has come under heavy attack in both the judiciary and legislature. More than a dozen states, mostly in the Midwest and west, sued the EPA in two separate lawsuits in a federal court in Texas and a district court in North Dakota.

In Congress, the House of Representatives passed a rider prohibiting the EPA from using any funds for the expanded regulation, and a Senate subcommittee last month advanced a bill that would prevent the Clean Water Rule from taking effect.

In front of the National Aquarium and Inner Harbor on Wednesday, though, talk was less about the ongoing legislative battle and more about the rule’s local impact. Speakers from the aquarium, a brewery and a local marina all spoke about how important clean water is to their respective industries.

“Our message today is clear: The Clean Water Rule is great news for Maryland’s rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore’ s Inner Harbor and our drinking water,” said Kimberly Williams, a campaign organizer with Environmental Maryland.

Shawn Garvin, the EPA’s administrator for the mid-Atlantic region, discussed how the rule is raising public awareness about clean water.

“A lot of people look out their backyard or they look at the stream that they can see and don’t have an appreciation for the overall impact it has to the entire water system,” he said.

Garvin spoke about the rule’s effect on a number of sectors central to Maryland’s economy, including manufacturing, tourism, fishing and farming. He said the rule wouldn’t create any new requirements for agriculture or any new red tape to wade through.

But organizations representing farmers are some of the most opposed to the Clean Water Rule—though they stress that they are not against keeping water clean but rather the government overreach it signifies.

“Farmers feel that they put that water there so they could use it on their farms,” said Katie Ward, spokesperson for the Maryland Farm Bureau, adding that the EPA “might come in with crazy rules and regulations for a tiny ditch that fills up with water.”

“We use it more than most industries in America, we realize the importance of clean water, and we’ve been doing everything that we can, especially with the Chesapeake Bay,” Ward added, “but we just feel that [the Clean Water Rule] would be too burdensome and imposing.”

The Maryland Farm Bureau is encouraging its constituents to write to Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski urging them to support the Senate bill that would stop the Clean Water Rule. More than 100 Maryland farmers have done so, Ward said.

However, Cardin has expressed public support for the Clean Water Rule, citing the protection it could bring to the Chesapeake Bay, and a representative from his office attended the conference at the aquarium.