The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF), along with other state farm organizations, applauded Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s move last week to intervene in a North Dakota district court case designed to stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from implementing of the controversial Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule.

"We are very happy that Gov. Branstad decided to intervene to help stop WOTUS, a rule which puts all Iowa property owners at great legal risk for activities and conditions that normally would be considered very acceptable," said Craig Hill, IFBF president. "It’s essential to use all available options to make sure that EPA does not fully implement this rule that is sure to create confusion and unneeded risk for Iowa farmers."

Hill’s comments were echoed by other farm leaders. "WOTUS puts farmers at considerable risk because a common farming practice that takes place in or near a defined water could now be in violation of federal law if the farmers have not obtained necessary Clean Water Act permits," said Bob Hemesath, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

Joins North Dakota case

Branstad announced on Nov. 17 that he had intervened in the North Dakota case, which had already been joined by governors or attorneys general in 13 other states. The judge in that case in August granted a preliminary injunction to keep the federal agencies from implementing WOTUS in the 13 states. In October, a federal appeals court in Ohio temporarily blocked implementation nationwide in a legal action filed by several states not involved in the North Dakota case.

In all, officials in 31 states have filed legal actions against WOTUS. Instead of the federal law, Branstad said the states are pushing to keep their innovative water quality initiatives, such as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, from getting bogged down in federal red tape.

"The WOTUS rule is a federal overreach that imposes significant barriers and impairs Iowa’s ability to advance innovative water quality practices that would actually advance our common goal of water quality," Branstad said in a release when he intervened in the North Dakota case. "I ran for Governor in 2010 to return predictability and stability to Iowa and this federal rule increases, rather than decreases, uncertainty for Iowa farmers and small businesses."

Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey agreed that joining the lawsuit to overturn WOTUS is the right thing to do. "The misguided WOTUS rulemaking process has created uncertainty and has threatened to impede our efforts to get conservation and water quality practices on the ground," he said.

Pushing for legislation

The IFBF, the American Farm Bureau Federation and other organizations have lobbied Congress to stop WOTUS, which was designed to revise the definition of what is considered a "water of the United States" and is subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. Congressional action, the groups said, would offer permanent relief from the WOTUS and would force the EPA to start over in writing the rule, as opposed to temporary court actions.

The House, earlier this year, passed a measure to ditch the rule. However WOTUS opponents in the Senate were not able to gain a 60-vote super majority needed to move a measure similar to the House-passed bill to ditch the rule. The Senate did pass a resolution sponsored by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst to scrap the WOTUS rule; however, that resolution now faces a presidential veto.

Instead of adding clarity, IFBF and others contend the rule has only added ambiguity, leaving farmers facing the potential of delays, red tape and steep fines as they complete normal farm operations, such as fertilizing, applying crop protection chemicals or moving dirt to build conservation structures.

"The EPA has created new definitions in this rule that have never been used before," Hill said. "Those definitions are extremely ambiguous, and interpreting them will require the courts spending decades to unravel them."