Our Voice: Federal agencies need oversight people can trust

Federal agencies often appear untouchable, which feeds the distrust people have for politicians and government bureaucrats.

What is needed is a better way to hold them accountable.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers, one of those perceived impervious agencies, recently was reigned in by a lawsuit and now must follow a permit process with the Environmental Protection Agency. From now on, it will have to disclose the amount of pollutants its dams are spilling into the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The irony is that while the EPA is giving the Corps some desperately needed oversight, it too, could use some supervision, as it also has a reputation for conducting business however it wants.

These two water issues and the federal agencies involved in them make for an interesting juxtaposition.

Currently, the EPA is having a difficult time convincing landowners its new wetland rules are not an authoritative grab on their ditches and watering holes.

In an attempt to relieve people's fears, the EPA has dedicated an entire website to the issue, www2.epa.gov/uswaters. Judging by the online reaction of farmers and ranchers, however, it hasn't really worked.

A government agency can list all kinds of assurances, but it won't do any good if people don't believe its administrators are telling the truth.

The EPA's "Water of the United States" rules are an attempt to clarify the Clean Water Act and specifies what water is protected under its jurisdiction.

It wants to have authority over seasonal and rain-dependent streams and the wetlands near them. The rules also say that other types of water may have more uncertain connections with downstream water, and those will have to be studied on a case-by-case basis.

This last bit is likely the biggest cause for concern by landowners who wonder what the ramifications will be for their current water use.

The EPA has said the new rule does not protect new water, broaden coverage of the Clean Air Act, regulate ground water or expand jurisdiction over ditches.

Yet the concern continues.

The problem is there is a perception the EPA will over-reach its regulatory authority and there isn't much anyone can do about it.

Like the Corps, the EPA appears too powerful. It seems the only way to bring in oversight is if a watchdog group or grassroots organization files a lawsuit and forces it.

But lawsuits are expensive and time consuming. There needs to be a better way to monitor federal agencies and curb their authority if they get too broad.

Making these changes one legal settlement at a time is not the way to go.