Manatee County farmers, real estate agents concerned about expansion of Clean Water Act

MANATEE -- The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act was expanded to cover streams and wetlands Wednesday, inciting a reaction from those in the agricultural and real estate sectors.

The rule is designed to help federal officials clarify and simplify which bodies of water fall under the control of the Clean Water Act, the environmental law adopted in 1972. The act protects waters that eventually flow to U.S. drinking water sources.

According to an EPA statement, Wednesday's rule "does not create any new permitting requirements and maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions."

Rep. Thomas Rooney, a Republican who represents Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee counties and parts of East Manatee, Hillsborough, Polk and Lee counties in Florida's 17th Congressional District, said in a statement he does not support the extension of the existing act.

"I'm going to fight as hard as I can to make sure the EPA does not get one dime to enforce this historic overreach onto farms in Florida and across the country," Rooney said. "The rule issued today by the Obama administration is a blatant power grab that clearly violates the intent of the law and the will of Congress, and we will not fund it."

Local farmers also fear the rule extends the federal government's reach too far.

The rule is intended to take into consideration two U.S. Supreme Court cases from the 2000s and to lay out standards for which waters should be covered. The Clean Water Act requires permits for developing or discharging into covered waters, making the rule of vital importance to farmers, and to landowners in general.

"People think it's only going to affect certain people, but it's going to affect everybody," said Barbara Anson, real estate broker and wife of Manatee County hay farmer Bob Anson. She said the Clean Water Act rule will affect the real estate industry and new construction.

"You won't be able to dig a pond to make a pad for a house," she said.

Bruce Shackleford of Four Star Tomato Inc. has been farming in Manatee County since 1975. He said he has had to deal with the government "at one level or another" for his entire career. Shackleford said when regulations originated from the federal government, complications develop because bureaucrats aren't familiar with how water and farming work in Florida.

He said his main concern is that federal regulators will overstep their bounds.

"They claim it won't affect farmers and apply to farmers," Shackleford said. "The question now is are they going to be truthful about what they're doing and exempt farmers from it?"

He feels Florida is especially vulnerable because

of its landscape and wet season.

"Especially in a state like Florida. In a good year, we get 50-some-odd inches of rain; then what part of Florida can't be considered a wetland?"

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement that Wednesday's action is necessary for the health of the U.S. drinking water supply.

"For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean, too," McCarthy said.

Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.