A bill to improve water quality and monitor for harmful chemicals passed the US House of Representatives recently without the support of any Iowa Republicans.
Instead, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, alongside Sen. Joni Ernst, support a set of rules that prioritize local control over certain waterways and limit how much the federal government can regulate those waters. Both introduced resolutions in their respective bodies.
In an op-ed before the she voted against the House bill to better track PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” in water, Miller-Meeks argued that “Clean water is a national priority.” But the main policy she spoke about was reaffirming a rule that rolled back Obama-era water quality efforts.
The focus is the Trump-era Navigable Waters Protection (NWPR) rule, which redefined Waters of the United States (WOTUS), a designation that defines the government’s regulatory authority of various waterways under the Clean Water Act.
In April, Miller-Meeks introduced a resolution to keep the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which defines protected Waters of the United States in a way that favors farmers and other landowners by removing pollution protections for waterways like streams and wetlands. She said that regulating those bodies puts too many confusing burdens on farmers and other landowners. Miller-Meeks called the previous implementation government overreach and said the owners of the land should be allowed to make environmental decisions.
Under that version of the rule, four categories are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act, and 12 are excluded, including many features found on or near farms like groundwater, run-off, most ditches, prior converted cropland, artificially irrigated areas, and artificial lakes and ponds.
In Iowa, the main causes of pollution in waterways can be traced back to agricultural run-off. The state has a voluntary program called the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, but critics and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources say it has no framework for what success looks like and no deadlines for meeting clean water goals.
On Monday, 12 Iowa beaches were under swimming advisories because of E. Coli and bacteria concerns.
Ernst’s resolution has support from 27 other Republicans, including US Sen. Chuck Grassley, and no Democrats. Miller-Meeks’ has 125 Republican co-sponsors, including all three of Iowa’s Republican Congresspeople, and zero Democrats.
In June, President Joe Biden’s administration started a process to revise the definition and requested the Trump-era rule be placed on hold by a federal court. The Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers announced their review of the NWPR in January 2021.
The goal is to restore protections that were in place before 2015 and establish a sturdy definition for Waters of the United States.
The NWPR was finalized in January 2020 and reduced the number of waterways covered by the Clean Water Act compared to the 2015 Clean Water rule—which drew criticism from private landowners—and pre-2015 regulations. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board found that the new definition decreased water protections and isn’t supported by science.
The rule was published in June 2020 and challenged about a week afterward by multiple groups including ranchers and environmental groups. It faced many more challenges throughout 2020 by states, Indigenous tribes, and other environmental and conservation groups.
by Nikoel Hytrek