The new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week pledged to work with states, farmers and other stakeholders to rescind the current version of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule and replace it with a new rule that follows Congressional intent, provides clarity to farmers and does not overextend the reach of the federal government.
Focused like a laser
"We are focused on this like a laser," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said during a roundtable discussion about WOTUS at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) headquarters in West Des Moines that was hosted by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. "We want to get rid of this bad rule and replace it with something much better," the EPA administrator said.
Along with Reynolds, Pruitt discussed his plans for a new WOTUS rule with Iowa farm leaders, Iowa Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. He outlined his agency’s two-step plan to rescind and replace the WOTUS rule.
The process of rescinding the current WOTUS rule has already started, the EPA leader said. Farmers are urged to make comments on the EPA’s plan to rescind the rule by the Aug. 28 deadline.
(Find more information on how to add your name to the petition to repeal the current WOTUS rule on page 2.)
Once WOTUS is repealed, the EPA will work quickly to develop a new rule that "gets it right" on the definition of what bodies of water do qualify as waters of the United States, Pruitt said. The agency wants to have the new rule in place by the first quarter of 2018, he said.
The new rule, Pruitt said, will protect the environment without the spreading federal jurisdiction over vast portions of the country. "We are going to make sure that puddles, dry creek beds, ephemeral drainage ditches, man-made tile lines and irrigation ponds are not considered a water of the United States," he said. "And this notion that we cannot be about environmental stewardship and economic growth is simply a false narrative," Pruitt said.
Pruitt emphasized that getting rid of WOTUS was also a priority of President Donald Trump. "He is very committed to this and wants us to make sure we make this right," he said.
The WOTUS rule was imposed by the Obama administration in 2015 to designate what bodies of water should be regulated under the Clean Water Act. However, the rule was been stayed by a federal court of appeals after Iowa, along with the number of other states and entities, sued to stop it.
The IFBF, along with other leading ag organizations and farm-state lawmakers, has fought hard to stop the WOTUS rule because it created tremendous uncertainty and confusion for farmers and regulators.
"The WOTUS rule is a severe example of the overreach of the federal government," Reynolds said.
The law, Grassley noted, created the potential of regulatory roadblocks and costs for farmers doing normal farming practices such as moving dirt on a low spot in a field.
Northey said that the WOTUS rule is preventing farmers from implementing conservation measures because it’s impossible to determine how a wetland, terrace or other structure will be treated under WOTUS.
The opponents of the law also said the Obama-era EPA disregarded farmers’ concerns and used dishonest tactics to push the law through the regulatory process.
"I have never seen a rule coming from government that is more consequential to agriculture than this one," Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau told Pruitt during the roundtable. "It stripped farmers of land use decisions, and the dishonesty over what the definition meant was rather incredible."
Iowa lawmakers applauded Pruitt’s actions on WOTUS, as well as the changes he is making within the EPA.
Pruitt’s emphasis on working with states impressed Reynolds.
"There is commitment to a balanced state and federal partnership, which is what it should be," she said. "In Iowa, we pride ourselves in being leaders in water quality and I’m really proud of the cooperative effort we’ve had in creating the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. But unfortunately, we have experienced delays in implementing environmental improvement due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2015 WOTUS rule."
Grassley noted a renewed focus on agriculture in the EPA. "The interest of family farmers was not taken into account by the EPA in the previous administration," Grassley said. "And from what I am hearing now, that is one of the agency’s core principles."
Ernst said that Pruitt has shown a willingness to work with all of those impacted by WOTUS. "This gives us the opportunity to right this wrong for Iowa and across the nation."
New ways of operating
In his roundtable with farm leaders, Pruitt also outlined the key difference in how the EPA will operate in the Trump administration. The agency, he said, would operate under the rule of the law, would respect the federal process of the developing rules and would work closely with states.
The WOTUS rule provides a clear example of how the Obama administration's EPA did not follow those same principles.
The rule of law
"The agency has not operated within the rule of law," Pruitt said. "You had an agency that took the definition of a water of the U.S. under the Clean Water Act and reimagined it. No one in Congress ever thought that a puddle in Iowa should be considered a water of the U.S."
The result was a regulation that was inconsistent with the statute, which created confusion and paralysis on those that were affected by the rule, Pruitt said.
Another big problem was that the EPA did not go through the prescribed federal rulemaking process in writing WOTUS and instead encouraged litigation from environmental activist groups, the EPA administrator told the Iowa farm leaders. That subverts the process and hurts those regulated, he said.
"We in the agency are responsible to listen and take comments into consideration before we finalize the rule," Pruitt said. "That’s how you build consensus and that’s how you make informed decisions."
The EPA also ignored the varied needs of states in the WOTUS rule, Pruitt said. "It’s not paternalism, it should be a partnership with the states," he said.
Farmers and ranchers, Pruitt emphasized, are the first environmentalists and deserve to have a voice in the debate over WOTUS and other EPA issues. "Help is on the way and you are going to be able to look at the EPA as a partner, not an adversary," Pruitt said.