October 20, 2014

Former NDEQ Director raises questions about “Waters of US” proposal (AUDIO)

A former director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality says the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to fix something that isn’t broken in its controversial proposal to expand the Clean Water Act.

Former NDEQ Director Mike Linder has analyzed the EPA move to update the Clean Water Act, called “Waters of the United States” on behalf of Common Sense Nebraska, a group opposed to the change.

“So, the first part of my summary is they’re trying to fix the 404, the federal program, and I think they’ve broadened the jurisdiction and I don’t think they’ve really fixed it very well,” Linder tells reporters on a conference call.

Section 404 covers the wetlands permit program operated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Linder, an attorney with Koley Jessen of Omaha, says currently the Corps determines on a case-by-case basis which rivers, streams, creeks, and ponds are covered by the Clean Water Act and which are exempt from regulation. He says the EPA effort to define those bodies of water is problematic.

The change also would affect programs traditionally overseen by the states.

Linder says the change could encroach on those state-run programs that have operated under a cooperative federalism since the Clean Water Act became law in the early 1970s. In Nebraska, the state works with farmers and livestock producers on compliance.

“If I were a producer I would be a little bit confused as to how this would impact my operation,” Linder says. “And if I had had an exemption or other decision by the state agency that now could be changed by this definition, I would want to have that clarification made.”

Linder speculates the change could also extend EPA’s regulator power to groundwater, which hasn’t been subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. The EPA has stated it does not have jurisdiction over groundwater, but Linder says some definitions need to be revised to clearly indicate that.

Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Water with the EPA, Ken Kopocis, denied the proposed changes would extend the EPA’s reach onto the farm.

“We believe that the proposed rule would cover fewer waters than what the current rule covers. So, we do not believe that we’re expanding jurisdiction,” Kopocis told Nebraska Radio Network in a telephone interview from this Washington, D.C. office in August.

Linder, responding to a question about Kopocis’ statement, says he couldn’t see how the proposed expansion would not broaden the reach of the EPA.

Linder says he would prefer EPA withdraw the proposal and work to better enforce current law.

“So, I don’t know, they’re trying to fix something that’s not broken with the other programs.”

EPA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule through November14th.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau is encouraging comments opposed to the rule change be posted on ditchtherule.fb.org.

PDF of Linder analysis of EPA proposal

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [1 min.]

Bridge repairs & unfunded mandates among top issues for county leaders

County leaders from across the state will gather in Kearney this week for the annual legislative conference of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

Executive director Larry Dix says several issues are on the agenda, including the zoning debate that’s underway in the state.

“There’s a number of reports that are somewhat concerning in the number of head of livestock that we have,” Dix says. “There’s been some recent discussion about some dairies looking at the state of Nebraska. We just want to have a conversation about our zoning regulations. Are they adequate, are they what they should be?”

Dix says there will be a presentation about the effects the EPA’s proposed Waters of the U.S. Rule would have on county road maintenance. He says the association has also compiled its platform and legislative priorities.

“We’ve been working very hard on unfunded mandates and looking for additional funding for bridge repairs,” Dix says. “Unfunded mandates is one of those where both of the candidates that are running for governor have openly talked about it and said we’ve got to do something as it relates to property tax.”

An engineering consultant for several counties estimates the cost to replace or upgrade all substandard bridges in Nebraska could exceed $2 billion.

Dix says they’ll also discuss fiscal notes and the counties’ role in making sure the state understands the impacts of state policy on local government. The conference will be held Thursday in Kearney.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


Dead mountain lion near Ericson likely killed by car

Photo courtesy of NEBRASAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Photo courtesy of NEBRASAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

It appears a female mountain lion has been run over and killed near Ericson.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reports the body of the female lion was discovered along a road. It appears to have been struck and killed by a vehicle.

An investigation is underway, including forensic analysis.

Game and Parks says that anyone with information regarding the incident may call the Nebraska Wildlife Crimestoppers at 1-800-742-7627. Callers may remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.

The illegal take or possession of mountain lions or any parts thereof is prohibited without a proper permit, according to the commission.

Water levels will remain high on the Missouri River to prep for ’15

Gavins Point Dam

Gavins Point Dam

The Missouri River will see continued high levels over the coming weeks as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepares for next year by maintaining above-normal releases from Gavins Point Dam.

Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division in Omaha, says maintaining the increased releases now will help lower the risk of flooding next season.

“We’ve had a fairly high runoff into the reservoirs for most of the summer, really peaking in August when we had our second wettest August on record,” Farhat says. “As a result, we’ve increased the releases out of Gavins Point with the goal of evacuating all the water that’s stored in the flood control pools by the start of next year’s runoff season.”

Along with flood control, Farhat says excess water will extend the navigation season.

“The higher releases that we have now will provide an additional three or four feet in the river, which will help navigation here in this latter part of this season,” Farhat says. “We are also providing an extension of the navigation service, an additional ten days, so it’ll end on December 10th at the mouth near St. Louis.”

She says it will also mean an increase in hydropower generation.

Farhat says the Corps is holding public meetings on October 28th in Pierre, South Dakota, and on October 29th in Council Bluffs for people who are interested in the water management operations.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


Senators question feds’ conservation projects along NE/SD border

Two federal agencies are working on several conservation projects along the Nebraska-South Dakota border that require land to be set aside for habitat and public access.

Casey Kruse, the Missouri River coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he’s working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the projects which involve federal land purchases and easements along the Missouri River.

“That is still moving forward through the environmental assessment process,” Kruse says. “It’s slower than we’d all like but it’s still moving forward.”

Nebraska’s two U.S. senators have sent letters to both agencies, questioning the motives of the purchases and the projects and calling for a halt to further actions without more explanation. Kruse says they are still working out the details and outlines of the land to be set aside.

“There’s a lot of work going on relative to the easement language and the parameters for qualification and the area, adding descriptions and those types of things,” Kruse says. “We’re anxiously awaiting the opportunity to use that tool and provide it to folks on a willing basis to help with some of the issues that compound and challenge river management here.”

In their letter, Senators Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer have asked the federal agencies to stop land purchases until they can detail the wildlife benefits expected from the projects. Kruse says they are working with willing landowners in an attempt to either create an easement or a purchase.

Kruse says, “What this is leading and going towards, based on a lot of public input, is really going not to the government owning the land but actually providing easements for folks, particularly in lands that have had damage to them or have been difficult to farm, those types of things.”

He says the actions are always voluntary, working with willing landowners, allowing the government to come in and find conservation and river benefits on properties where people are often struggling.

The letter from Johanns and Fischer asks that the agencies stop any further land purchases by November 1st.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton