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Missouri bill would slash state regulations on small streams and major aquifers

People swim and fish in the Jacks Fork River on a hot summer day in 2021. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and environmental groups warn a Missouri Senate bill could seriously hamper the state's ability to protect clean water.
Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent
People swim and fish in the Jacks Fork River on a hot summer day in 2021. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and environmental groups warn a Missouri Senate bill could seriously hamper the state's ability to protect clean water.

Missouri’s leading agriculture groups are pushing legislation environmentalists and state regulators warn could jeopardize thousands of miles of streams and drinking water for 3.6 million people.

Members of a Missouri Senate committee on Tuesday heard testimony on a bill that would narrow the definition of “waters of the state,” slashing the state’s authority over small streams and major aquifers. Supporters say it’s necessary to clean up confusion in the law.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources warned in a fiscal analysis that the bill could jeopardize the state’s groundwater, which provides drinking water to almost 60% of Missourians, and 136,236 miles of small streams.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Rusty Black of Chillicothe, said he’s working with state regulators on updated language to ensure the legislation doesn’t threaten groundwater.

Black said he introduced the bill because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act and limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority over wetlands. Black’s legislation would similarly limit the types of waters Missouri can regulate.

“I have wells at home. I don’t necessarily want those to get bad,” Black told the Senate’s Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee. “But at the same time, going past my home, past farms, my family farms…what out there on those properties really should be state waters?”

Black’s bill would define waters of the state as all “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing rivers, streams, lakes and ponds” that are not confined to a single piece of property. Lakes, ponds, aquifers and wetlands would have to have a “continuous surface connection to a relatively permanent” body of water. Current law defines waters of the state as any body of water that crosses property lines.

The term “waters of the state” is referred to throughout the state’s pollution control laws, meaning placing limits on its definition narrows the kinds of water Missouri regulators can protect. Agriculture groups supporting the legislation say it brings the state in alignment with the new federal authority.

“We have a current definition of waters of the state…that regulates basically grass waterways and other upland watercourses that I would rather call a ditch than a stream,” said Robert Brundage, an attorney for the Missouri Pork Association and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association.

But environmental groups say there’s no reason to narrow Missouri’s definition. Federal pollution rules, they said, set minimum standards, but the state is free to further regulate water as it sees fit.

Critics fear the language requiring that lakes, ponds, aquifers and wetlands have a surface connection to another body of water in order to be protected would exclude numerous bodies of water.

Zach Morris, president of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said he was concerned about streams that have surface connections during periods of high flow or wetlands that are disconnected from rivers at the surface but are connected underground.

“The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are drinking water sources for millions of people and they have many, many wetlands along their banks that are permanently separated by man made structures but still have a subsurface connection,” Morris said, “and polluting those waters could certainly add pollution into that drinking water source.”

Melissa Vatterott, policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, told the committee the legislation “is seeking to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
“It’s being pushed by a very few industries — or maybe one particular person — to create confusion,” she said.

Stephen Jeffery, an environmental attorney, said the bill should be rejected because it conflates wetlands and subsurface waters and fails to take into account the huge differences in geology and hydrology between various parts of Missouri. Beyond that, he said, “there have been expressed, so far today, no significant compelling reasons to change the existing law.”

“There’s been no testimony at all today of any government overreach or government intrusion coming onto someone’s property to do something that is unlawful,” Jeffery said.

He then quoted President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address: “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge. It’s common sense.”

The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.