The Farm Foundation sponsored a discussion Wednesday at the National Press Club about a change in federal water quality regulations that may require farmers to get Environmental Protection Agency permits for normal farming activities,such as using pesticides and nutrients on crops. And some worried that the expense of regulation could translate into higher costs for growers,which would be passed on to consumers when they go to the market.
The rule,referred to as Waters of the U.S.,or WOTUS,would be part of enforcing the federal Clean Water Act of 1977. It would expand federal jurisdiction to regulate more wetlands and streams.
The EPA said WOTUS is necessary to protect wetlands and tributaries from runoff that would pollute larger bodies of water downstream. Most seasonal and rain-dependent streams would also be regulated,and others would be evaluated individually on their connection to water sources downstream.
The discussion was moderated by Farm Foundation Trustee J.B. Penn of Deere & Co. and included Gene Schmidt,an Indiana grain farmer and past president of the National Association of Conservation Districts,and self-described “recovering lawyer” G. Tracy Mehan,source water protection coordinator for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.
Mehan,a former EPA assistant administrator for water,was meant to give a regulators’ point of view,while Schmidt was meant to speak for the agriculture industry. However,the two frequently shared similar opinions.
“I think the biggest issue is clarity,” Schmidt said. “Anytime I’m trying to figure out whether I should or shouldn’t – and somebody pitches a wildcard,there’s something I’m not aware of or is not upfront.”
Mehan agreed,saying most of the controversy comes from uncertainty about the extent of regulation and concepts such as the ecological concept of connectivity,meaning that runoff from farms affects adjacent wetlands and vice versa.
“My reading is it was actually intended to make agriculture feel better,but it doesn’t seem to be having that effect,” Mehan said. “There’s a lot of questions.”
The two men agreed the EPA and the agriculture industry need to do more to understand each other during the WOTUS rulemaking process.
Schmidt said the agency needs to allow for flexibility for regional differences and acts of nature,and Mehan said growers need to make sure the agency has a firm understanding of farming techniques.
Schmidt said all farmers have a vested interest in conservation. But the agency’s standards are based on controls,and many things are beyond a farmer’s control.
“I’m all for wetlands,” he said. “Wetlands can have a very positive impact,but can also have a very negative impact.”
Major weather events can max out the water level of wetlands and disrupt the topography of the soil of adjacent farmlands,making it too wet to farm,he said.
Schmidt said he’d prefer to build a reservoir for floodwater,rather than have a storm overfill an adjacent wetland and ruin his crops. But he doesn’t think he will be allowed to do so under the new regulations.
And problems like that vary greatly from region to region.
“If you have a blanket rule,you don’t cover that,” Schmidt said.
It’s more than just a matter of EPA science versus economics,Mehan said.
“This isn’t just a science issue. It’s also a political issue,” he said. “The only ones that can fix that is Congress,and they’re AWOL.”
Earlier this month,the House passed a resolution to halt the EPA from implementing WOTUS.
The Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act,H.R. 5078,was introduced in July by Rep. Steve Southerland,R-Fla. The vote was largely along party lines,with Republicans in favor.
President Barack Obama said that he will veto the measure if it comes across his desk.
The EPA is accepting comments on the rule until Oct. 20 and expects to issue a final rule in April.
While conservative politicians fear federal overreach,growers fear the cost of regulation.
Schmidt said it’s most important to figure out the what-ifs during the rulemaking process.
“I’m not saying it would happen,but what if it doubles your food cost? Are you OK with that?”
Reach reporter Wesley Juhl at [email protected] or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.