House votes to block EPA from implementing new water-regulation plan

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The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to block the EPA from implementing a new plan that critics say could significantly broaden the agency's ability to impose environmental regulations over America's waterways.

Many farmers and landowners across the country say rules proposed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would give federal regulators even more say over waters. The issue had become a hotly contested one for many who say there are already too many government regulations affecting their businesses.

The House bill, approved by a 261-155 vote, would force the EPA to withdraw the rules and consult with state and local officials before rewriting them.

The rules would clarify which streams, tributaries and wetlands should be protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said one out of three Americans get their drinking water from sources that aren't clearly protected, and the rules would make sure those waters aren't polluted.

Some lawmakers said it was overreach and was aggravating longstanding trust issues between rural areas and the federal government.

The rule would "trample on private property rights and hold back our economy," read a memo sent out by the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., before the House floor debate.

The White House has threatened to veto the legislation.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill last month that would lay out what bodies of water should be covered and force the EPA to rewrite the rules by the end of next year.

"We've got a whole lot of pent-up frustration and concern because it seems like every time they turn around, there is a new set of regulations for farmers to be concerned about," says North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who is backing the Senate bill. Heitkamp, narrowly elected in a competitive Senate race in 2012, says it's the number one issue she hears about from farmers.

"It's the perfect example of the disconnect between Washington and rural areas," says Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, another Democrat backing the legislation.

Lawmakers say they believe that the proposed "waters of the United States" rules would expand the government's reach over these smaller bodies of water. They say the proposal is too vague and could be subject to misinterpretation.

Under fire, EPA officials have acknowledged they may not have written the proposal clearly enough, and said final rules expected in the coming months will better define which waters would fall under the law.

"I want to tell you up front that I wish we had done a better job of rolling out our clean water rule," McCarthy told the National Farm Bureau Federation, a staunch opponent, in March.

Still, the agency argues the rules are necessary to make clear which waters are regulated in the wake of decades-long uncertainty and two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the issue. The 2001 and 2006 decisions limited regulators' reach but left unclear the scope of authority over some small waterways, like those that flow intermittently.

Broadly, the EPA's proposed rules would assert federal regulatory authority over streams, tributaries, wetlands and other flowing waters that significantly affect other protected waters downstream. That means some operations that wanted to dump pollutants into those waters or develop around them would have to get a federal permit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.