FIRST ON FOX: Nearly 200 House Republicans penned a letter to the Biden administration Thursday, demanding that it rescinds a regulation that could threaten the livelihoods of thousands of U.S. farmers and ranchers.
The letter — led by Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and cosigned by 193 fellow Republicans including House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn. — argued that the so-called Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which broadly defines water sources protected under the Clean Water Act, would create regulatory uncertainty and confusion.
Newhouse addressed the letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan and Michael Connor, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. In late December, on the last working day of 2022, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced they had approved the regulation and that it was set to go into effect in March.
"I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, WOTUS is the most egregious federal overreach this nation has ever faced," Newhouse told Fox News Digital in a statement. "Every farmer, rancher, or property owner who moves dirt will be harmed by this rule."
"This letter emphasizes House Republicans’ commitment to fighting back against this overreach and representing the voices of our constituents who are united against this rulemaking," Newhouse continued.
The EPA rule opens the door for the federal government to regulate wetlands, lakes, ponds, streams and "relatively permanent" waterways, largely mimicking a pre-2015 environmental rule set during the Obama administration which implemented the changes in an effort to curb water pollution. After the rule was announced last month, Regan said it "safeguards our nation’s waters" and Connor added it would "allow for more efficient and effective implementation."
However, Republicans, farmers and agriculture industry groups ripped the regulation, saying it represented a massive federal overreach that would make it "more difficult for farmers and ranchers to ensure food security." Newhouse and the other lawmakers noted in their letter Thursday that farmers, ranchers and other small business owners could face jail time and other legal punishments if they misinterpret the rule.
"Rural communities in the West and across the country are dedicated to clean water and do not deserve to be punished by the continued legal uncertainty that this new final rule promulgates," they wrote to Regan and Connor.
"Violations of the Clean Water Act carry significant criminal and civil penalties meaning that farmers, ranchers, and small business owners could face jail time and thousands of dollars in fines a day for making changes to their property," they added.
The battle over how to define protected water sources in the U.S. stretches back nearly a decade. Years after the Obama-era changes were unveiled, the Trump administration reversed the rule and highlighted which water sources — such as puddles, groundwater, many ditches, farm and stock watering ponds and waste treatment systems — that it wouldn't consider in need of federal protection.
Then, in 2021, a federal judge struck down the Trump administration's change and reinstated a pre-Obama WOTUS regulation.
And there is currently case pending before the Supreme Court, Sackett v. EPA, which could restrict how the EPA is able to regulate waterways. The case concerns a family was prevented from building a home on a lot they own in Idaho after the EPA said construction would disrupt navigable waters located on their lot.
"These changes mean that agency permits could be required for normal farming activities–such as removing debris and vegetation from a ditch, applying pesticides, changing the type of crops grown on a field, or constructing a fence or pond," the GOP lawmakers continued in the letter.
"Permitting is a costly and time-consuming process that requires farmers and ranchers to hire attorneys and consultants they often cannot afford," they stated. "It is unacceptable that the agencies continue to create regulatory uncertainty for farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and landowners."
In addition, the Republicans expressed concern that the EPA deliberately timed the announcement during the holidays to "score political points and appease activists."
They concluded the letter, urging the EPA to rescind the December rule and postpone any action on the issue until the Supreme Court makes a ruling in Sackett v. EPA.
"The American people deserve certainty and an assurance that existing rules and regulations will not fluctuate with the threat of criminal penalties and significant financial hardship for failing to abide by the ever-changing rules," they wrote.
"This new WOTUS definition will only increase regulatory uncertainty and worsen conditions for farmers, ranchers, job creators, and landowners. Given this, we urge you to rescind the rule and postpone any subsequent agency action on WOTUS to allow the Supreme Court to issue an opinion on Sackett v EPA."
The EPA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
FOX Business reporter Greg Wehner contributed to this report.