SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's conservative political leaders, farmers and ranchers are hopeful a Tuesday roundtable discussion with the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will result in a new regulation that provides clarity on which bodies of water fall under federal oversight.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited Utah as part of multistate tour to get input on how the agency can be more responsive to states' needs in general and in specific how the controversial Waters of the United States rule should be retooled.
During his tour of Utah, Pruitt stopped off at the Bitner Ranch and Conservatory in Park City to get a firsthand look at a small pool of water that falls under federal regulation due to the rule, as well as a subdivision development hampered by permitting requirements.
"We want to provide clarity to private property owners across the country that the overreach, that the definition offered by the previous administration is going away," said Pruitt, who in his former role as Oklahoma attorney general crafted one of many states' challenges to the Obama-era rule.
"When you define waters of the United States to include dry creek beds, drainage ditches and puddles — and that is not really an editorial comment — that impacts literally how you use your land all over the country," he said.
Pruitt is acting under the direction of an executive order issued in February by President Donald Trump that called for a rollback of the so-called WOTUS rule, which inspired a firestorm of controversy when it was adopted in 2015.
Although celebrated by sportsmen's groups and environmental organizations as the most comprehensive and significant overhaul of the Clean Water Act in more than 40 years, the rule raised the ire of states, farmers, ranchers and industry officials who complained about its scope and ambiguity.
At the time of its adoption, federal regulators insisted the rule only clarified protections for seasonal waterways that are critical to downstream communities. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers contended the rule did not expand the scope of jurisdictional oversight — an assertion hotly contested by the National Association of Counties, which argued even ditch maintenance projects would require a Army Corps of Engineers permit.
In late June, Pruitt initiated a proposal to repeal the Waters of the United States rule and later invited states to offer their input on a new regulation that would incorporate a standard in a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That test said federal jurisdiction would only apply to "relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water."
Pruitt said the problem with the EPA during the fledgling existence of the rule is that it was applied on a case-by-case basis.
"What I hear consistently is that we need regulatory certainty. We need to know where federal jurisdiction begins and ends. Decisions were being made after the fact," he said, stressing that land-use decisions were being impacted by the rule all across the country.
"That really isn't beneficial."
Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson accompanied Pruitt on the tour Tuesday and praised the EPA action.
"The flawed WOTUS rule created uncertainty for farmers and ranchers across the country, allowing federal agencies to micromanage farming practices and impose unworkable regulations,” Gibson said.
The rule was troubling for Utah's farmers and ranchers because it extended jurisdiction to any low spot where water collects, including farm irrigation ditches and fields, ephemeral drainages, livestock watering ponds on private and public lands, as well as isolated wetlands, Gibson said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation was among the most ardent critics of the rule, pointing to a California farmer who faced fines of nearly $3 million for plowing a wheat field that created a discharge into a regulated waterway. In that case, the waterway was the Sacramento River located 8 miles away and connected to a creek that only carried water during times of heavy runoff, according to the organization.
Utah, as the second driest state in the nation, is home to multiple washes and drainages that only contain water intermittently. Critics feared those would fall under federal regulation.
Environmental groups and conservation organizations that include the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership favored the regulation, citing its protection of wetlands — particularly the Prairie Pothole Region that is home to upward of 70 percent of the ducks in North America.
Seven scientific organizations that include the Society of Wetlands Scientists argued in a letter to Trump that the rule should be left intact.
In a separate announcement during his visit, Pruitt said the EPA will revisit a previous ruling on Utah's regional haze plan, allowing the state to come up with additional visibility modeling to look at impacts from a pair of PacifCorp-owned power plants to nearby national parks.
"Historically, the state of Utah, their voice has not been heard," Pruitt said.
The regional haze rule, which only carries a visibility standard, is designed to protect views in scenic regions of the country.
Lindsay Beebe, organizing representative for the Utah Sierra Club, said Pruitt's visit ignored the voices of outdoor recreation leaders whose businesses are harmed by pollution in the parks and other organizations that want the state's public lands safeguarded from power plant emissions.