The revised Clean Water Rule issued last week by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does little to clear up confusion or ease concerns about the agency’s efforts to extend its reach over farms and land uses, Iowa Farm Bureau (IFBF) President Craig Hill said last week.
"The Clean Water Rule pushed out by the EPA is disappointing and will only serve to add confusion to the process for farmers," said Hill, a Warren County crop and livestock farmer. "There are more questions raised than answered by this rule: Which part of my farm is going to be regulated under their permitting process? Which is not? This rule and the definitions laid out in this rule suggests expansion, not contraction or clarity. What is most concerning is that it appears the EPA disregarded the more than 10,000 comments they got from Iowa farmers, and the many, many more from others around the nation."
Farm groups also questioned the EPA’s handling of the rule, including its campaign called "ditch the myth" to counter Farm Bureau’s efforts encouraging its members to tell the agency to "ditch the rule."
There are serious concerns about whether farmers’ concerns about the rule were given full consideration, said American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.
"Based on EPA’s aggressive advocacy campaign in support of its original proposed rule — and the agency’s numerous misstatements about the content and impact of that proposal, we find little comfort in the agency’s assurances that our concerns have been addressed in any meaningful way," said Stallman, a Texas cattle and rice farmer. "The process used to produce this rule was flawed. EPA’s decision to mount an aggressive advocacy campaign during the comment period has tainted what should have been an open and thoughtful deliberative process."
The final rule put forth by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stops just short of 300 pages in its attempt to define the waters protected under their jurisdiction as "waters of the United States," or WOTUS.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy maintained her stance that the rule only covers waters "that have historically been covered under the Clean Water Act."
"I think it’s going to be very clear to folks who generally don’t read rules, like the agriculture community," McCarthy told reporters on a call announcing the rule. "We’re going to work with them to make sure that they understand that erosional features, which are important to them, are really not of interest to us because they don’t meet our definition of tributary and science tells us we don’t need to worry about those."
The White House also threw its support behind the rule.
"The only people with reason to oppose the rule are polluters who threaten our clean water," said Brian Deese, a senior adviser at the White House.
But the language used in the final rule leaves plenty of room for interpretation that the EPA could use to greatly expand its reach onto farms, Hill said. The final rule asserts the EPA’s control over tributaries, which are defined as any land that has a bed, bank and ordinary high water mark —whether or not they contain water all year long or only occasionally. It also covers creeks, ponds, prairie potholes or other features the EPA and Corps say have a "significant nexus" to a navigable waterway.
"That expansive definition means many roadside ditches or farm ponds could be included," Hill said. "This new rule would also define many grass-planted waterways as regulated tributaries that would require a permit to improve or install new conservation practices. That’s troubling at a time when Iowa farmers are expanding their conservation practices. This is not a time to discourage or confuse the good work being done on Iowa farms that protect water quality."
And while McCarthy said normal farm activities like planting, harvesting and moving livestock across streams would continue to be exempt from Clean Water Act regulation, Hill pointed out that other critical farm activities like tillage, spraying and applying fertilizer could be called into question.
Hill said the rule should be withdrawn since it only serves to confuse rather than clarify, a stance shared by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, who is co-sponsor of a bill calling on the EPA to start over on the WOTUS rule.
"I am sorry to say, as expected, the rule is bad news for rural America," said Roberts. "As chairman of the Agriculture Committee, I’m proud to champion agriculture. We will lead the charge in pushing back against EPA’s egregious federal overreach."
The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would require the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw the rule, which will be effective 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.