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On Environmental Regulation

A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with NPR , Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was talking about fines that a Wyoming rancher had to pay because he didn’t get a federal permit to build a pond, though he did have “local” permission to do so.

The Senator made this statement, “You should not have to get a federal permit to build a cattle pond. This is the kind of thing that has kind of run amok in our country is the federal government trying to regulate individual local issues like land use.”

And it’s been bothering me ever since. You see, about 25 years ago, I worked as a Virginia Water Protection Permit writer for the Commonwealth of Virginia. This means that I wrote state permits for construction projects that could impact the waters of Virginia – including permits for farm ponds.

Basically, Virginia certifies to the federal government that proposed activities will not have an impact on water quality provided certain conditions apply. It looks like a state permit, but the state is required to issues those permits according to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

One project in particular comes to mind. A landowner in the far western part of the state wanted to build a small, decorative pond on his property. The application stated that the stream he wanted to dam originated from a spring on his property, and that the spring had a watershed of less than 5 acres.

By the time the application got to my desk, several other regulators had already signed off on it – if the application had been correct, the pond would not have needed an individual permit. It would have been covered under waivers or general permits. But the application wasn’t correct.

When I looked at a topographic map of the stream to be impounded, I saw that it was one of those that goes underground for a while then re-surfaces – so it looked to the landowner like the water was coming from a spring, but it was not. The watershed feeding the stream was over 10 square miles – so it was a significant, perennial stream. Not only that, but it was a designated trout stream, and downstream of the proposed pond was a private trout fish farm.

The proposed pond would ruin the stream’s water quality for trout. Ultimately, the project was denied the permit. I met with the landowner and explained to him the reasons for the denial. He was disappointed, but understood.

He had his local permits – which in Virginia meant that they were zoning and construction permits – but without the federal and state environmental requirements, the water of that stream would not have been protected. Damage would have been permanent – both to the Commonwealth’s fishery and to the private business that depended on the stream’s quality.

This is why environmental regulation is needed – localities do not have the mandate or expertise to protect natural resources. Localities work on a scale that is too small to see broader impacts. To protect water quality, even cow ponds need to be reviewed by a higher authority.

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