Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are granted jurisdiction over the “navigable waters” of the United States. If a boat can float on it, it’s theirs to regulate. Over the years, the definition of “navigable waters” overflowed its banks, expanding to include virtually anywhere with detectable levels of H2O.
“What began as a reasonable attempt to control water pollution in our nation’s interstate rivers, lakes, and streams,” says Peyton Knight at the National Center for Public Policy Research, “spiraled into unreasonable federal regulation of isolated wetlands, ponds, dry lakebeds, intermittent streams and drainage ditches.” As time went on, landowners were required to obtain permits for everything from draining a field for plowing to building a dock to filling in a low wet spot.
In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a muddled opinion in Rapanos v. United States that reined in some of the more exotic interpretations of “navigable waters.” Now Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would replace the phrase “navigable waters” with “waters of the United States,” by which they mean “all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing.”
If the bill passes, it will create new regulatory barriers for fishermen, boaters, hunters, and even some conservationists, who may find that their favorite hobbies no longer pass muster. The act leaves it up to the courts to decide if “waters of the United States” also includes your kitchen sink.