“Waters of the United States” sounds like the title of a coffee table book but the reality is rather less benign than a hefty tome crammed with pretty photographs.

It’s hardly surprising that farmers and ranchers celebrated last week when the Trump administration repealed a 2015 rule that expanded the federal government’s authority under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Exactly how far that expansion could have gone is not clear.

Curtis Martin, a North Powder rancher and chairman of the water resources committee for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, told the Herald he wasn’t aware of any cases in Oregon when federal officials had cited the 2015 rule in restricting a private landowner from using water to irrigate crops, one of the major concerns critics have mentioned since the Obama administration enacted the rule four years ago.

But parts of that rule gave producers ample reason to worry.

Most notably the 2015 rule expanded the definition of Waters of the United States to include not only navigable waterways — generally, rivers and other significant year-round streams — but also tributaries, including minor ones that don’t even flow all the time.

More worrisome, Martin said, was the possibility that any waterway with a “biological or chemical” connection to a navigable waterway could also be subject to federal oversight. That could conceivably encompass even irrigation ditches.

Problems with the 2015 rule aren’t confined to its questionable scope, though. It’s also an example of the executive branch thwarting the will of the legislative.

Congress recognized the potential overreach it represented, and in early 2016 both the Senate and the House approved a resolution overturning the 2015 rule. This was after a federal appeals court blocked the rule in parts of the country.

But President Obama vetoed that resolution.

Last week’s repeal eliminates the uncertainty for farmers and ranchers. Protecting water quality is vital, of course, but federal officials need to take a fresh look at how extensive their authority needs to be to accomplish that goal.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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