Monday, August 10, 2009

Ranchers Worry Over Water Rights / What Else is New?

WINDMILL: Ranchers concerned with new language in water restoration act
By Jerry Lackey (Contact)
Saturday, August 8, 2009

Although most ranchers have come to terms with the Clean Water Restoration Act being debated in the U.S. Senate, they have deep concerns about the word “navigable” in the document being replaced with “waters of the United States,” said Eldon J. White, executive vice president and CEO of the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

“Taking out the word ‘navigable’ would give the federal government regulatory authority over stock tanks, drainage ditches and any water features found on family ranches despite large opposition from cattle raisers across the country,” White said.

Under the seemingly minor change in language, the federal government would be able to control mud holes in the middle of private property, he said. The legislation would result in a major decrease in authority from state governments and private property owners across the nation.

If the measure became law, ranchers would be required to manage around mud puddles in the middle of pastures. If they were found not to demonstrate proper management, the federal government could require they get a permit.

“The inspection and monitoring of stock tanks would fall to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and they don’t have the staff nor the budget to do that, particularly visiting all the stock tanks in the state,” White said in a recent interview. “So the impracticality of it to begin with is an issue, but the basic rights of an individual and the ownership of a piece of land and the water that’s on the surface of that land for the benefit of that rancher has nothing to do with municipality water supplies or runoff or anything else becomes a greater issue.”

“All waters are not equal in terms of their environmental function and value, and they should not be regulated in the same way,” said TSCRA President Dave Scott, a rancher from Richmond. “If this bill passes in Congress, ranchers across the U.S. will be forced to get a permit to continue everyday operations on their own land.

“The federal government already struggles to handle the backlog of 15,000 existing permit requests; how it plans to deal with the massive amount of new permitting requirements and litigation this bill will surely create is beyond reason,” Scott said. “There is no doubt ranchers like me will be the ones forced to cover the costs, not to mention the huge administrative burdens of endless government red tape.”

Jim Chilton, a fifth-generation rancher from southeastern Arizona, testified July 22 on behalf of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council during a House Committee on Small Business hearing on the CWRA.

The proposed Act — which passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last month — would drastically expand the Clean Water Act, giving the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency control over all watersheds in the nation, and all “activities affecting these water,” Chilton said.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the average applicant for an individual Clean Water Act permit spends 788 days and $271,596 in complying with the current process, and the average applicant for a nationwide permit spends 313 days and $28,915 — not counting the substantial costs of mitigation or design changes (Rapanos, 447 U.S. at 719, plurality opinion), Chilton said.

Considering U.S. farmers and ranchers own and manage approximately 666.4 million acres of the 1.938 billion acres of the contiguous U.S., the permitting requirements under this act would be an unmanageable burden for the government and could bring farming operations to a standstill.

“As a rancher, I wholeheartedly understand the critical importance of a clean water supply; it’s necessary for the health of my animals and my land,” Chilton said.

“Federal agencies have ample authority under existing law to protect water quality, and it’s essential that the partnership between the federal and state levels of government be maintained so states can continue to have the essential flexibility to do their own land and water use planning.”

Jerry Lackey writes about agriculture. Contact him at or 949-2291

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