Anthony K Francois, Christian Britschgi, Clean Water Act, Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Federalism, Interstate Waters, Jonathan Adler, Navigable Waters Protection Rule, Obama administration, Property and Environment Research Center, Reason.com, Trump Administration, Waters of the United States, WOTUS
Those who like their government served-up intrusive are reacting hysterically to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which forbids the federal government from regulating waters that are not interstate waters or waters that aren’t or cannot be used in any way related to interstate commerce. The federal government will no longer have jurisdiction over normally dry, “ephemeral” creek beds, private lakes and ponds unconnected to interstate waters, and most ground areas where rainwater pools, such as ditches on private property. This is a very good thing!
The emphasis of the new rule on interstate waters hews more closely to the constitutional limits of federal power than did the rescinded rule that had been imposed by the Obama Administration in 2015, which some called the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule (really an interpretation of “navigable waters”, or WOTUS as defined by the 1972 Clean Water Act). Christian Britschgi writes at Reason.com:
“The Obama-era rule was controversial from the get-go, with multiple Red states filing legal challenges claiming it exceeded the federal government’s authority to regulate water pollution. A slew of federal court rulings stayed the implementation of the rule in over half the states.”
Some of the straightforward differences between the new rule and WOTUS were mentioned above, but Anthony K. Francois of the Property and Environment Research Center gets into a bit more detail in his nice summary of these changes in federal authority.
In many cases, state and local governments already have regulatory authority over waters placed off-limits to the EPA. In fact, as Jonathan Adler wrote last summer, some of those state regulations are more stringent than the federal oversight now rescinded. That flies in the face of assertions by activists that states will be patsies in their dealings with property owners (the activists would call them “polluters”). So those who claim that the new rule will cause damage to the environment are really saying they only trust the EPA’s authority in these matters. They are also saying that no private citizen who owns property should be presumed to have rights over the industrial, commercial, or residential use of that property without review by the federal government. Under WOTUS, this represented such a severe abrogation of rights that it interfered with both productive activity and private enjoyment, not to mention the considerable confusion and costly litigation it prompted.
Weighing the costs and benefits of regulatory actions is a difficult undertaking. However, it is far too easy for regulators, with an imbalance of coercive power in their favor, to impose costly standards in locales where there may be little or no net benefit, and where individual property owners have no recourse. Regulators get no reward for protecting individual liberty and property rights, which skews their view of the tradeoff against potential environmental damage. Federal regulatory power is best kept within strict limits. The same goes for state and local regulatory power, but authority at those levels is at least more accountable to local interests on behalf of consumer, business and environmental concerns.