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Megan Corvus: Puddles, in fact, not part of final Waters of the United State law

In October, the News Register published a Viewpoints commentary by Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Starrett, outlining her concerns about the EPA’s “Clean Water Rule: Waters of the United States” (Oct. 14, “EPA ruling should be ditched), which was finalized in August 2015. Though I was unfamiliar with WOTUS, the topic caught my eye, especially Starrett’s multiple assertions that the EPA will now consider even puddles to be “navigable waterways.”

Curious, I took to Google, and did some research. The Waters of the United States rule is an update to the 25-year-old Clean Water Act, which originally established the EPA’s authority to regulate pollutants in surface water, defined then as “waters of the United States.” Those of us in the damp Pacific Northwest can certainly appreciate how unspecific that definition is, especially after an October rainfall like we had this year. Over the years, many lawsuits have attempted to clarify what, exactly, fell under the EPA’s jurisdiction  specifically, how far upstream of actual navigable waters can the EPA regulate potential pollutants?

The 2015 Waters of the United States rule was the EPA’s attempt to finally address the confusion by combining the results of legal findings with updated scientific understanding. The resulting document outlines what types of water features fall under the Clean Water Act in extremely boring detail. The EPA’s stance, published in an FAQ on their website, is that this rule more narrowly defines but does not expand existing Clean Water Act regulations. Opponents, like Commissioner Starrett, argue that it is the intention of the government to expand the EPA’s regulatory oversight. Like many issues today, it is difficult to know where the truth sits between the two sides.

My original question about puddles, though, might yield some clue. In her article, Starrett stated, “It wouldn’t matter if your backyard or field was dry for the past 20 years, and a heavy rainfall suddenly left a puddle or a tiny stream, the EPA, according to the 297-page rule, might consider it ‘navigable’ or a Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS).”

However, the rule itself (available on the EPA’s website) states: “The final rule adds an exclusion for puddles. The proposed rule did not explicitly exclude puddles because the agencies have never considered puddles to meet the minimum standard for being a ‘water of the United States,’ and it is an inexact term. A puddle is commonly considered a very small, shallow and highly transitory pool of water that forms on pavement or uplands during or immediately after a rainstorm or similar precipitation event. However, numerous commenters asked that the agencies expressly exclude them in a rule. The final rule does so.”

Why was Starrett wrong about puddles? Perhaps because the second half of her article was borrowed nearly word for word from one published in June, 2014, by Mr. Craig Hill in Iowa Farmer Today, (tinyurl.com/q8mu9nr). In 2014, the proposed WOTUS rule was still in public review. As a result, further clarifications were made, making this two-year-old article no longer relevant.

We rely on our elected officials to represent us in regional and national discussions about policies that affect us. As a citizen of Yamhill County, I am concerned how Commissioner Starrett chose to use her position to contribute less than the truth to that conversation.

Megan Corvus is president of the board of the L.A. Water Cooperative in Gaston.

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