Right-Wing "Watchdogs" Push "Bogus" EPA Map Conspiracy

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A group of right-wing news sites coordinated across the U.S. are baselessly pushing a conspiracy theory that the Environmental Protection Agency has been hiding new maps that reveal an "alarming" power grab. But the maps of U.S. waterways were simply updated from versions created during the Bush administration, and are helping the agency keep drinking water safe more efficiently.

Earlier this year, the EPA proposed clarifying which waterways are under the protection of the Clean Water Act, as companies have been able to pollute "beyond the law" due to legal confusion. Conservative media have been accusing the EPA of attempting "the biggest land grab ever" with this revision, even though the clarification will not add any new waterways compared to the EPA's historical authority -- in fact, it will cover fewer bodies of water than it did under President Ronald Reagan.

In line with this conservative media narrative, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) accused the EPA on August 26 of hiding maps that would allow them to advance the planned revision in order "to control a huge amount of private property across the country." Rep. Smith's claims are being uncritically touted by Watchdog.org, a conservative news website with state bureaus across the nation. Watchdog.org's Colorado bureau stated that the maps "graphically show the increase reach [sic] of the EPA's regulatory authority," including a map for Colorado they called "particularly alarming." Their North Dakota bureau published an article claiming that a landowner is already experiencing "the federal government attempting to regulate wetlands that aren't always wet." And an article from their Maryland bureau was boldly headlined: "Maps reveal EPA water grab in Maryland," going on to state that "the Maryland map plainly shows how much more authority the rule would give over bodies of water in the state of Maryland."

However, the maps, which were created during the Bush administration and recently revised to reflect new data, are not intended to show the scope of the EPA's jurisdiction, but will provide a scientific tool for the EPA to better understand which water bodies need protection. An EPA spokesperson explained to the Washington Examiner:

Let us be very clear -- these maps have nothing to do with EPA's proposed rule or any other regulatory purpose. They were first created during the Bush administration to identify waters that would be vulnerable as a result of a 2001 Supreme Court case and pending litigation. The maps were subsequently updated to reflect new data and a 2006 Supreme Court decision.

The agency added in a response on their website that the maps "do not show the scope of waters" to be regulated but "show generally the location" of water bodies and "serve as a tool for visualizing how water flows across our nation and in regions of this country," and will ultimately help to "reduce leg work, saving time and money." Furthermore, the width of the waterways was distorted on the maps for ease of use by water resource managers "mak[ing] it seem like water is more prevalent than it really is."

Jon Devine, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), stated on the NRDC's blog that "Only in the House of Representatives and the any-government-is-bad-government press could an expert agency having a map prepared from another expert agency's public data be a reason for hysteria."

Devine's statement was prescient. The Watchdog.org bureaus are a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which advocates "free markets" and "limited government," according to its president. The Franklin Center, which claims to provide 10 percent of daily reporting from state capitals and owns at least 55 news sites around the country, aims to "expose corruption and incompetence in government." Their funding comes almost completely from Donors Trust -- of which the Koch brothers are top contributors -- also known as the "Dark-Money ATM" of the right wing.

Devine stated in an email to Media Matters that the media's concern over the EPA's maps characterize the "bogus" rhetoric of calling the rule unprecedented:

People are using distorted maps to distort what the administration's Clean Water Protection Rule would do, but they can't escape one fact that shows how bogus all of the rhetoric is - if this proposal were finalized, fewer water bodies would be protected by the Clean Water Act than was the case during the Reagan administration. Because this proposal focuses on waters that science shows are important to people's health and well-being, it is critical that a strong rule be finalized as soon as possible.

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