Many farmers and ranchers have low places that hold water on their land during the rainy season. Those prairie potholes or playa lakes or dry washes rarely get more than a passing thought for most of the year.

But they could begin to loom much larger in farm and ranch operators’ minds if a bill that is currently stalled in the Senate begins to gain traction, a Washington representative for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says.

The bill, the Clean Water Restoration Act, which has been introduced and re-introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But a hold placed on the bill by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has prevented further action from being taken on it.

“The Clean Water Restoration Act is a huge issue to the cattle business,” says Colin Woodall, vice president, government affairs, for the NCBA. “It would redefine what the waters of the United States are, the waters that the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have jurisdiction over.

Speaking at the Cattlemen’s College during the Cattle Industry Annual Convention in San Antonio, Woodall said the debate centers on removing the term “navigable” from waters of the United States in the Clean Water Act.

“If they redefine by removing the term navigable, it will allow most every water body that’s out there to be regulated by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. We’re talking about prairie potholes, playa lakes, dry washes, any sort of depression that holds water in the rainy season. Those could all potentially be under the regulation of EPA.”

NCBA leaders believe such a change would have an impact on the cattle industry’s ability not only to use those individual water bodies but also the land around them similar to the manner in which EPA now regulates the spraying of pesticides over fields adjoining bodies of water.

“Not to mention that it is a huge private property rights violation to have EPA coming on your land and telling you how you can and cannot use the land,” said Woodall.

The bill passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last June. “We’ve been able to put a hold on that to prevent further action, but we continue to watch it very closely because it is a serious threat,” he said.

“We need to make sure that cattle producers are calling their members of Congress and letting them know we can’t allow EPA on our land to regulate our water and the area around it.”

The Clean Water Restoration Act was one of several issues Woodall addressed during his presentation on “Political Climate Change and the Beef Business” at the 17th anniversary Cattlemen’s College sessions in San Antonio.

He called the recent vote on the U.S. Senate seat vacated following the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts “a game changing election on a scale that we haven’t seen in a long time. Because of that we’re seeing both sides step back, scratch their heads and try to figure out how they’re going to approach the rest of the year.”

Woodall was referring to the 60 votes Senate Democrats and the two independents that have been caucusing with them could employ to cut off debate on legislation pending before the upper chamber.

“This one vote being taken away from them pretty much slows down the train on every single issue, the most important of which perhaps is health care reform. There is quite a bit of irony that the one big thing that Sen. Kennedy tried to get done was health care, and the guy who is replacing him is in all probability going to kill it.”

Among the other issues that are likely to be derailed is the climate change legislation that also passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2009. But the change in voting blocs is not the only factor in the bill’s troubles.

“Climate change legislation right now we think is stalled and potentially flat out dead,” he said. “The reason is the Climate-gate scandal that came out back in December that talked about all the misuse of information in regards to climate change.

“Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the chair of the Senate Ag Committee, also has said that she doesn’t want to move forward right now, either. So with all those things combined and it’s also a mid-term election year, we just don’t see climate change moving. Now the issue is not going to go away, but the legislation we think is going to be stalled.”

Woodall says the definition of victory has changed somewhat for groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in recent months.

“It really comes down to who understands the cattle business and who doesn’t,” he said. “We have some very strong Democratic allies who are willing to work with us on issues that are critical to our business.”

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