The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its 111,000 word “Waters of the U.S.” proposed rule. It is the EPA’s latest interpretation of the 1972 Clean Water Act.
However, the rule threatens to drain the vigor from routine conservation and farming practices.
The well-meaning Clean Water Act brought a national focus on cleaning up the nation’s waters at a time when environmental stewardship was lacking. When Congress wrote the Clean Water Act, it clearly intended for the law to apply to navigable waters.
The EPA’s rule, however, effectively expands the definition of “navigable” waters well beyond congressional intent.
Under the rule, virtually every drop of water that falls on fields would be under the control of the EPA. Ditches, puddles, ponds and diversion channels created to reduce soil loss and pretty much any land where water pools or collects would be considered “waters of the U.S.”
That means normal farming practices conducted near water, even parts of fields that are only wet during rainstorms, could be subject to federal permits.
While the EPA suggests in the official statements that agriculture will be exempt, the fine print of the regulation says otherwise. Those exemptions will apply only to farming that has been ongoing since the 1970s, not to new or expanded farms. Even for those exempt farms, the exemption does not cover planting, weed control, fertilizer use, manure application or building a fence.
Here’s a scenario: Let’s say you are installing stream bank fencing in one of your pastures, and a neighbor or passerby notices the equipment is operating near the stream. The neighbor calls the EPA, wondering if what you are doing is legal. The EPA could determine that digging a hole for a fence post creates a “discharge” into federally regulated water. The result may be an order from the EPA to obtain a federal permit or pay a hefty fine.
More than 80 national farm and commodity organizations, including the American Farm Bureau, have voiced their strong opposition to the rule because it will allow the EPA jurisdiction over normal, ongoing farming practices.
They are asking Congress to weed out this proposal. Recently, 231 representatives and 46 senators signed letters to EPA urging them to withdraw it.
The EPA has said the “waters of the U.S.” rule provides clarity and certainty. The only thing clear and certain under this rule is that it will be more difficult for farmers to farm and make changes to the land, even if the changes would benefit the environment.
The EPA’s proposed “waters of the U.S.” rule is wrong, pure and simple. Congress needs to ditch it.
Jon Olson is executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau Association, which is located in Augusta. It is the state’s largest farm organization.