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Diane Roberts: Southerland and the Clean Water Act: Somebody has to stand up for run-off

When he’s not dodging questions about his trip to the King Ranch, Congressman Steve Southerland is touting a bill to help struggling polluters.

See, that socialist Clean Water Act messes with his BFFs at Florida Power and Light, the Florida Farm Bureau, and the Homebuilders Association. Dagnabbit, somebody has to stand up for run-off! Southerland’s HR 5078, the Regulatory Overreach Protection Act of 2014 would block federal oversight of waterways and wetlands.

The congressman came all the way to Tallahassee to hold a press conference, explaining that a proposed EPA rule imposes “crippling Washington mandates” on Florida’s alliteratively resonant “farms, forestry and family businesses.”

In other words, the rule would preserve the Clean Water Act.

The press conference was supposed to be held on the steps of the Old Capitol: in a campaign video, those white columns and red-striped KFC awnings resonate with Southerland’s target demographic. But it was raining. The congressman, the guy with the “More Freedom, Less Government!” sign, the reporters, the Chamber of Commerce lady, and the superfluity of white guys in blazers and khakis, retreated to the New Capitol.

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Associated Industries of Florida’s Brewster Bevis (unless it was Bevis Brewster?) acted as emcee. Mr. Bevis had the silky manner of a small-town undertaker. Indeed, he’s the son of a Tallahassee undertaker and the cousin of the congressman. Who is also an undertaker.

It’s the South. Ain’t you read Faulkner?

The important thing is that every speaker at this damp presser flung around the same overwrought word salad: “Big gubmint bullies!” “Profound overreach!” “Washington power grab!”

(Big) Ag commissioner Adam Putnam hinted darkly that since your lawn gets soggy in the rain, the feds could declare it a wetland. Steve Southerland attempted a quip: “Just because we have a rainy day, that’s no reason to expand the jurisdiction of the EPA!”

Oooh, snap!

Thing is, though: It’s all complete bilge, tommyrot, crapola.

The proposal that’s got Southerland’s tighty-whities in a twist actually narrows the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, addressing uncertainties caused by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and especially in 2006 with the Rapanos case, a muddy mish-mash of a wetlands ruling in which there was no majority opinion. Both Congress and the high court told EPA to clean up the confusion.

Southerland and Putnam didn’t mention that part. Instead, they complained that “bureaucrats 1,000 miles away” control Florida’s wetlands. I don’t know what map they’re looking at, but Jacksonville, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for Florida wetlands, is only a two-and-half-hour drive from Tallahassee. Duval County has lots of wetlands of its own, too.

The congressman, the commissioner and their discharge-happy comrades at AIF argue that “Florida can better regulate its waters than bureaucrats in D.C.” Echoing Gov. Rick Scott, they claim — with impressively straight faces — that the state Department of Environmental Protection does a great job.

Right. That’s why many of Florida’s rivers choke under blankets of toxic algae; many Florida beaches are fouled with fish kills; and our wetlands, vital to our drinking water, our health, and wildlife habitat, are dying.

No doubt it’s mere coincidence that while the draft EPA measure has been public since September 2013, Southerland didn’t get around to concocting this dirty-water bill until the middle of an election year.

Diane Roberts is a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University. Her latest book, “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America,” will be out in paperback in the fall.

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