Farm groups around the country are celebrating the withdrawal of an interpretive rule within the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers withdrew the interpretive rule on Jan. 29, citing a requirement by Congress included in last year’s “cromnibus” appropriations bill. The interpretive rule was intended to clarify normal farming activities exempt from the Clean Water Act.
“Farmers have a lot of concerns about WOTUS,” said Maryland farmer Chip Bowling, president of National Corn Growers Association. “What we need is clarity. The interpretive rule actually made things less clear. We hope that the withdrawal of the interpretive rule will allow us to get to the true matter at hand: how the Clean Water Act is administered.”
A wide range of national farm organizations have been calling for the withdrawal of the interpretive rule in formal comments to the EPA and Corps last year. NCGA has also called for significant changes to the WOTUS rule itself, and will continue to work with EPA through the rulemaking process. A final rule is expected this spring.
Bowling stressed the importance of working with the EPA and giving farmers a voice during the process.
“Last October, I brought EPA officials to my farm so they could see firsthand how the proposed rules would actually apply in practice. It was a productive conversation. To the EPA, I want to say: thank you for listening. I think both sides learned a lot,” Bowling said. “We need to continue that dialogue, on WOTUS and beyond. We can all agree that clean water is important. Farmers are committed to improving water quality and conservation practices. We look forward to working with Administrator McCarthy and the EPA as they finalize the WOTUS rule, to ensure it is clear and workable for farmers.”
The EPA guidance, officially called an Interpretive Rule, was issued in March 2014. It said farmers are only exempt from needing Clean Water Act permits for more than 50 routine farming practices if they comply with detailed Natural Resources Conservation Service technical conservation standards. Historically, these standards have been voluntary, and the farming practices exempt from the permit process.
“Our concern with the initial proposal from last year is that it could have altered the long-
standing and productive relationship between farmers and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, in a way that would have made it harder for farmers to implement water conservation measures,” said Jamie Jonker, the National Milk Producers Federation’s vice president for sustainability and scientific affairs. “We’re pleased the EPA and Army have recognized that this regulation could have backfired, and that they’ve taken the necessary step to withdraw it.”
Had the interpretive rule not been withdrawn, “the NRCS would have been thrust into the role of enforcer, rather than remaining a source from which farmers could seek conservation advice. This could have hindered rather than helped conservation efforts,” Jonker said.
The now-withdrawn Interpretive Rule was intended to be part of the larger WOTUS proposal issued last year by the EPA. The larger proposal is still under review by both EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, and is also being scrutinized by Congress and remains a concern for agricultural groups.