Photo credit: Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation, CC

By Deanna Robbins

Imagine a scenario where Montana farmers and ranchers have to apply to a federal bureaucrat in order to plow a field, or build a fence, or move cattle from one pasture to another.

It sounds ridiculous, and it is. But this crazy notion has made its way from the radical environmentalists’ wish list into an actual rule proposal from President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency. If they are successful with this rule, known as Waters of the United States (or WOTUS), the EPA will be given expanded regulatory authority over any land use and farming practices near any body of water, down to prairie potholes and ephemeral streams (those that only have water during heavy rains).

With this jurisdictional rule there would be no limit on EPA’s determination of what constitutes a “waters of the United States,” giving EPA the means to usurp all state authority.

Montanans owe a big thank you to Attorney General Tim Fox for joining with attorneys general from other agriculture states to fight back against what is a gross and totally unjustified overreach of federal power. Now we need to make sure our congressional delegation is working together to protect Montana as well.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, giving the EPA authority to regulate navigable waters—rivers that run year round and flow between states. Regulation of other bodies of water were reserved for the states.

WOTUS represents the EPA’s attempt to go beyond their congressionally allowed authority and push aside state regulators. While claiming that WOTUS clarifies the scope of the Clean Water Act, the new rules are authored purposefully ambiguous. Given these new definitions, the EPA would have authority to regulate almost any water feature in the country, down to a mud puddle. According to analysis by the Farm Bureau, the miles of streams in Montana subject to federal regulation would double.

WOTUS would require a permit for such simple things as moving soil in the process of building structures, creating drainage, landscaping or even plowing for planting crops. WOTUS would give the EPA unprecedented authority to dictate farm and ranch management decisions.

No one is arguing that it is not important to protect and maintain our water—farmers and ranchers know that better than anyone. Healthy land and water is essential to their livelihoods.

The point is that we as Montanans can do a better job of protecting our valuable water resources than the feds can. And we’re already doing a great job at that—Montana has some of the toughest water-quality regulations in the country. But at the same time, those water regulations are designed and implemented by Montana elected officials who we can directly hold accountable. The last thing we want is to cede that authority to a sprawling federal agency.

To stop WOTUS, Montana needs all hands on deck. Attorney General Tim Fox is doing his part by challenging the legal authority of the rule. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Ryan Zinke have both spoken out against the EPA’s rule and committed themselves to stopping it.

Unfortunately, U.S. Sen. Tester has been conspicuously silent on WOTUS. We need a united front on this issue to protect Montana’s most important industry, agriculture. Tester has been an advocate for agriculture interests in the past, but Montana farmers and ranchers need him on this issue more than ever before.

Make no mistake, WOTUS represents the single largest threat to Montana agriculture today. It’s unjustified, it wouldn’t result in better water quality in Montana, and it would be a catastrophe for our economy. Senator Tester, it’s time for you to take a stand.