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The Water Wars

The Clean Water Action Plan is perhaps the most anti-agricultural document ever produced in Washington, D.C.

Story and photo by J. Zane Walley

Olin Sim's fellow agriculturists elected him president of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, and a short while later he found himself embroiled in what has become a national rebellion against the Gore-mandated Clean Water Action Plan.
The Paragon FoundationThe first shot in the national water war was fired in Wyoming, and that befits the hardy individuality still embodied in its people. Expansively rugged land, ceaseless winds, vast skies, and fierce blizzards have molded the rural citizens of Wyoming into a flinty community that refuses to be ridden over roughshod by anyone, even the vice president of the United States.

Several major rivers rise in the snowcapped high country of Wyoming. The Yellowstone, Wind, Shoshone, Snake, Green, Powder, Gros Ventre, and Platte rivers are a litany of American history and the origin for much of America’s water. Many of Wyoming’s lakes, rivers, and streams drain into tributaries of the Missouri River, eventually joining the Mississippi and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Other streams flow west from The Great Divide into tributaries of the Colorado and Columbia rivers and from there to the Pacific Ocean. For decades, ranchers and farmers in the Cowboy State have watched in consternation as their water rights were eroded and Wyoming’s waters funneled downstream to megalopolises. When the Gore-mandated Clean Water Action Plan (CWAP) was suddenly and forcefully thrust on them, they viewed it as a water and land rights grabbing extortion of such magnitude that fighting it was their only option short of giving up their livelihoods.

Rancher Olin Sims has a country quietness, a politeness, a leanness of words common among people who work in this kind of open country, with its hundred-mile views, but when he speaks on problems affecting agriculture, it is with sureness and eloquence. His fellow agriculturists elected the strapping cowboy as the president of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, and a short while later he found himself embroiled in what has become a national rebellion against Vice President Al Gore’s Clean Water Action Plan, perhaps the most anti-agricultural document ever produced in Washington, D.C.

Olin believes it is a little bit bigger than just clean water. He figures it is the cornerstone of the vice president’s environmental campaign platform. “It has nothing to do with clean water,” he says firmly. “It is a way for federal agencies to seize and control our water and adjacent lands. At the same time the plan appeases the environmental vote. It invites the greens to be a part of the monitoring process and literally gives them police powers and right to enter private lands.”

The ghost town of McFadden, Wyo., population zero, occupies a gentle knoll overlooking the rich meadows lying in the flood plain of Rock Creek. The Sims family has ranched public and private land around the ghost town and waterway for four generations. Even though times have been slim the last few years, they are making it pay by using holistic ranching practices, managing their own as well as pasturing other cattle and producing an ultra-quality native grass hay. The constant biodiversity political pressures and tiers of federal regulations have caused Olin to spend much of his time away from the land.

“We have an endangered species for every acre of Wyoming land,” Olin remarks with a touch of bitterness. “Being successful in any type of resource-based business is a struggle, and now we have this Clean Water Action Plan sitting on us.”

Olin’s father Don squints at his youngest son with no small amount of pride and remarks, “We reckoned if we didn’t get involved, pretty soon we wouldn’t have a ranch to run. We split up responsibilities on our spread. Everybody has their job to do and we elected Olin to go fight the war.”

The Sims’ land and many other ranches straddle Rock Creek, a turbulent and muddy stream when it tumbles from the Snowy Range. Ranchers in the Rock Creek Valley redirect the waters and spread them across thousands of acres of native grass in their pastures. The grass filters the water and returns to the streambed, glass clear and pure. “We aren’t harming this creek,” Don says as he squats on the bank, cups his hands, and scoops a cold drink. He swigs it down and grins, ”Hell, if we were, I sure wouldn’t drink it!” His grandson, Tyler, agrees. He fly-fishes Rock Creek when he has slack time from his chores and regularly hauls out large trout for the family table.

Obviously, it isn’t the water quality that Sims and their neighbors are worried about, it is wording of the Action Plan and the deceptive way the EPA tried to implement it. Bobbie Frank, director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD), got stuck in a blizzard with not much more to read than Gore’s plan. She dug into it and discovered deep in its guarded text lies an omnibus threat to American agriculture and private lands. “It wasn’t like Gore offered a draft and said, ‘What do you think?’ It was a done deal and already published on the web. I sat down and read it through. All of it. I just sat there thinking, ‘Oh my, oh my.’”

When Bobbie revealed what she had found to Olin and the Conservation District’s Board of Directors, Wyoming, the least populated state in the lower 48, was not the least bit intimidated by the enormous federal forces behind the plan. Frank says, “We flatly refused to categorize our watersheds as impaired [read ‘polluted’] as EPA wanted us to, when they weren’t.”

Wyoming’s refusal to declare large portions of their water as unfit didn’t set well with the EPA’s grand water scheme. The regional office visited Wyoming twice and as Frank recalls, “positively hammered us.” Wyoming still refused so the feds threatened to withhold $900,000 that Congress had allocated for the state to use for stream restoration projects. That was a mistake.

The miniscule WACD decided to sue the federal government claiming in essence that the whole Clean Water Action Plan is illegal. They acquired the legal services of ranching-rights attorney Karen Budd-Falen and went looking for allies. The Conservation Board created a newsletter that warned of the plan’s consequences and started sending it to all American states, territories and commonwealths. Alarmed after being warned, states, organizations and individuals began signing on to the lawsuit in a trickle that has now become a flood.

CWAP is no easy piece of government jargon to comprehend. It is a complex and clever piece of bureaucratic double-speak full of hidden loopholes allowing enforcement agencies to make up water quality regulations as they please. Since Wyoming is in the thick of the fray and catching federal flack, CWAP has become the topic of conversation wherever land users gather to catch up on gossip, news and the usual “What the government is doing to us now” talk.

The Wyoming economy is based on the big five factors of ranching, mining, petroleum, logging and tourism. As the locals see it, their back is to the wall because CWAP threatens all major industries and employers in the state. Road closures on public lands under the terms of CWAP have already caused the loss of logging contracts, and blocked favored recreational roads. The oppressive water quality regulations imposed on the mining and petroleum industries threaten to shut those industries down because CWAP regulations are so impractical that it is not economically feasible to comply with them.

EPA has made agriculture the whipping boy by claiming it creates the majority of water pollution in America. Ralph Brokaw, one of Olin Sims’ neighbors on Rock Creek, reckons that CWAP will destroy his ranch if it is implemented as written. Brokaw is not the sort of fellow given to loose speculation or talk. He is a cheerful, smiling sort who loves his life on the ranch and wants nothing more than to be left alone so he can work the land. He’s got to work hard because the ranch supports three families. When the conversation turns to CWAP, his light-hearted attitude dissolves.

“CWAP is bad,” he grimaces. “It is a government shut-down approach. It is not locally led. It does not involve us who are in the dirt, working the dirt; it is a government control strategy. I think it just benefits Al Gore. It makes him look like he came and saved the world. It’s like for the last 25 years we’ve just ruined America and he’s going to fix it. I think it is entirely for his benefit and his gain.”

Brokaw has a good grasp of how deceitful the CWAP document can be. “The way the plan is worded, my neighbors and I could be forced to become an EPA-permitted operation. They can, by taking a water sample down the creek from all of us, combine our operations into a unit that makes us by (CWAP definition) a commercial feed lot operation. Even if our water is not impaired, what if they take a sample after one of our classic storms where we get an inch of rain in half an hour and we exceed the silt limit? That has nothing to with livestock, or the condition of the range. That is an act of God, a naturally occurring event, yet we can be held accountable and face huge fines.”

The rancher further explains, “Let’s say that EPA forces us to become permitted operations, then, according to CWAP, we have to fence off our riparian area. That fences off my entire ranch! It takes my life and my livelihood. That cannot be paid back. I cannot just move to town and start over; I would have nothing left.”

In April, Bobbie Frank and Karen Budd-Fallen presented the WACD case to The Paragon Foundation, a constitutional rights nonprofit organization. Paragon agreed with their position that the litigation was of extreme national importance and offered to provide a “match-grant.” Frank explains, “For every dollar we can raise, Paragon Foundation will match it. It is essential that we pool our monies for this fight. The Clean Water Action Plan will affect every person in our state, and the entire U.S.”

Olin Sims bluntly sums up CWAP. An article, “Weird Science at EPA,” that appeared in the May Reader’s Digest categorically proves that the agency under the directorship of Carol Browner is using highly questionable science to pass worthless regulations that cost Americans billions of dollars. CWAP is just another example of EPA governing and seizing property rights by regulation. It is an expansion of EPA authority and it isn’t even law. It is an executive directive and it is illegal. To those of us who work the land it is cultural eradication.”

J. Zane Walley is convinced that CWAP will bring American agriculture to its knees. “If there has ever been a time to fight back,” Walley insists, “it is now!”

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last page update: 04.03.05