The Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is receiving praise for removing a water rule that critics said was overly restrictive and violated freedoms.
The EPA's new rule replaces the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, removing the burdensome regulation from American farmers and landowners.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) applauded the move saying, "Oklahomans want clean, safe water in our rivers, lakes, and streams. Unfortunately, previous administrations used an extreme interpretation of the Waters of the United States rule, which significantly impacted how farmers, ranchers, and developers could use their land and how much money and time they had to spend to get an answer of what is permissible under the onerous rule."
Imagine putting a pond on your own land and then learning the government might fine you up to $20 million in penalties. Or you might even end up in jail if you don't have the money. Such was the WOTUS rule.
A Wyoming man who built that pond faced massive penalties and decided to fight back. CBN News reported his story several years ago in our "Nation of Criminals" series about the broader, out-of-control system of federal crimes and regulations.
Rancher Wanted to Build a Pond on His Land
In 2011, Andy Johnson obtained all of the necessary government paperwork before building a stock pond on his eight-acre ranch in Fort Bridger, WY.
At least that's what Johnson was told, according to Jonathan Wood, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation who worked with Johnson on his case.
"He worked with the state, the local government; got all the signoffs he needed, and created a pond in his front yard," Wood told CBN News at that time.
Johnson was careful about how the environment was affected when he created that pond.
"I'm an avid outdoorsman and conservationist," he said. "And since we've built the stock pond, not only does our livestock benefit from it, but we've had eagles, we've had blue heron."
Former federal regulator Ray Kagel, Jr. examined the pond and insisted it benefits the environment.
"It had the added benefit of creating quite a bit of nice habitat for fisheries, wildlife, waterfowl, and wetlands in general that were created because of the pond," Kagel stated.
Johnson said it even filtered the water from Six Mile Creek that he was using to supply his pond and made that creek cleaner.
However, the US Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency worry about the sources of any navigable waters in the US and were reportedly concerned about what harm Johnson might have caused to Six Mile Creek.
The EPA was supposedly angry that Johnson hadn't asked the agency for permission before he'd built his pond.
So in the dead of a Wyoming winter, the EPA demanded Johnson dismantle the pond in 30 days.
Wood said the agency felt, "He should have asked their permission first. And for having not done so, they demanded he remove the environmentally beneficial pond or pay up to $20 million in potential fines."
From Sitting by the Pond to Sitting in a Cell?
And more than money was on the line.
Wood explained, "Almost every environmental statute includes criminal provisions. So you could go to jail and face criminal fines for things that most of us take for granted on our own property."
The potential fines were up to $37,500 a day and piled up into the millions because Johnson ended up in a long, hard fight against the feds.
The bureaucrats accused Johnson of violating the Clean Water Act and potentially affecting navigable waters they believed Six Mile Creek fed.
Johnson and his lawyers announced in 2015 they were suing the government over its treatment of the Johnson family. That same year, Lankford and Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) sent a letter to the EPA to seek further clarification regarding compliance for the WOTUS rule, and Lankford was a co-sponsor of a Senate resolution to nullify the expanded WOTUS definition.
Cynthia Lummis represented Wyoming in the US Congress during that time and said of the EPA coming after Johnson, "This is federal overreach in the most egregiously ugly way."
Wyoming's Republican senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso wrote to the EPA, "…the Compliance Order reads like a draconian edict of heavy-handed bureaucracy."
Lankford also voted for a resolution of disapproval of the EPA's WOTUS rule in November 2015. In 2017, the Oklahoma senator applauded an executive order issued by President Trump that required the EPA and other applicable departments to review the WOTUS rule, ensure it promotes economic growth and minimizes regulatory uncertainty.
Someone Read the Map Wrong
"Someone went to the computer on their desk, pulled up GoogleMaps and based just on that accused this man of violating the law," Wood said.
Wyoming attorney Dan Frank pointed out how those bureaucrats made mistakes in reading those computer maps rather than visiting the pond and Six Mile Creek.
"Had they ever gone out, they would have found out that it deadends in a canal. And that it doesn't ever reach navigable water of the United States," Frank insisted.
By just looking at the maps, they also mistook how the creek flowed.
"They assumed the water was flowing uphill!" Wood explained. "If they had gone out and looked at the property, they would have found the water was flowing the other direction."
Government Doesn't Always Make Sense
"The only thing that makes sense from my experience as a former federal regulator is that the government quite often, in my own personal experience, does things that don't make sense," Kagel said.
At that Wyoming news conference announcing their suit against the EPA, Frank said to the agency, "Your desktop speculation and heavy-handed regulation that results is not going to fly in Wyoming. We're not going to let the EPA bully this hard-working Wyoming family."
Given the mistakes his team uncovered, Johnson felt compelled to fight as long as it took.
"I decided that I was not going to tolerate our government telling us exactly what we can and can't do on our private property," Johnson explained.
Ultimately, Johnson and his legal team won. The EPA backed down and gave up the fight.
'A Welcome Rebuke'
Sen. Barrasso wrote after the government caved, "The EPA should never be able to fine someone millions of dollars for building a pond on their own land. This settlement is a welcome rebuke of an agency that has gone too far."
"The government has incredible leverage over you. They can ruin your life and ruin your family's future if you don't do whatever they say," Wood stated, saying of Johnson, "That's why it was extremely brave of him to fight back and say 'no, you've exceeded your power. I haven't done anything wrong.'"
In the end, the EPA didn't get even one dollar from Johnson. And the pond still exists, still benefiting the environment, which you'd think the Environmental Protection Agency would appreciate.
"The Trump administration has finally provided clarity and certainty with the new Navigable Waters Protection rule that will allow landowners, farmers, ranchers, and developers to put their resources in their community, not fighting a federal agency," Lankford said in a statement.