Clean Water Act: Farm Bureau takes its case to head of EPA


Issue Date: May 28, 2014
By Christine Souza
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, second from left, discusses proposed Clean Water Act rules with California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, right, during a meeting in Washington, D.C. Other participants in the meeting included Farm Bureau member Dan Sutton of Oceano, left, CFBF federal policy consultant Erin Huston, center, and EPA assistant administrator Ken Kopocis, second from right.
Photo/Christine Souza
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, left, talks with Farm Bureau members Kris Gutierrez of San Joaquin County, Dan Sutton of San Luis Obispo County and Pierre Sleiman of San Diego County.
Photos/Christine Souza
Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and David Valadao, R-Hanford, talk with Gutierrez before the start of a meeting on Capitol Hill.
Photos/Christine Souza

As momentum builds encouraging federal agencies to abandon a proposal to expand their enforcement authority under the Clean Water Act, California Farm Bureau Federation leaders met with the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urging her to see firsthand the impact the proposal would have on family farmers and ranchers.

During an annual federal policy trip to Washington, D.C., last week, a Farm Bureau delegation met with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, whose agency—along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—proposed the rule changes last month.

The proposal would expand the definition of the term "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act, potentially allowing EPA and the Corps to regulate virtually every area of ground that gets wet or has flow during rainfall. The change would expand regulatory authority to many land features including puddles, ponds, ditches, temporary and small wetlands, giving the agencies the power to regulate and potentially prohibit land-use and farming practices in or near them.

During her meeting with the Farm Bureau delegation, McCarthy said she is interested in understanding the concerns of agriculture and that she would like to maintain an open dialogue with those who would be affected by the proposed rule.

CFBF President Paul Wenger suggested to McCarthy that EPA officials take time to tour California farms and ranches, perhaps tying in the visits with a planned EPA outreach meeting on the proposed rule, tentatively scheduled for mid-July in Berkeley.

"We think it's critical that people from the EPA see for themselves how this rule could hamstring routine farming and ranching activities," Wenger said after the meeting. "We appreciate Administrator McCarthy taking the time to visit with us in Washington to hear directly from people who would be affected by the rule, and having EPA officials visit farms and ranches would provide them with information that no amount of written or verbal comments could provide."

Aimee Meidinger, operations manager of Brokaw Nursery in Ventura, said the expanded definition of waters of the U.S. "could affect our ability and decisions to farm on my family's avocado orchard. The definition of navigable waters is being changed to encompass almost all areas where water settles, regardless if they are seasonally wet or not."

Farmers in California are very proactive in working with the current Clean Water Act regulations, Meidinger said, through use of irrigated-lands groups, surface and groundwater monitoring, pesticide use reporting and continuing education.

"We are good stewards of the land. This proposal cannot be a one-size-fits-all national policy," she said.

Bill Lipe, a director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said farmers and local governments in Monterey County would be subject to the proposed rule.

"Our county topographically is bordered by two mountain ranges, so when it rains in the mountains the water runs down into the Salinas River channel, which is a documented steelhead migratory route," Lipe said. "Essentially, that makes every inch of ground in the Salinas Valley most likely a significant nexus for inflows into the Salinas River and therefore subject to the EPA's proposed rule."

Lipe added that the rule "opens up the agencies' jurisdiction to include almost every single ditch, holding pond or reservoir."

Erin Huston, a CFBF federal policy consultant based in Washington, said if ditches and wet spots in fields are deemed "navigable waters" under the proposed rule, many routine farming and ranching activities could result in a "discharge" to navigable waterways and require a permit.

The federal agencies claim there are exemptions in the proposed rule for agriculture, but farm groups say the exemption only applies to one part of the act—Section 404, the "dredge and fill" permit program—and provides no protection from enforcement involving other activities such as weed control, fertilizer applications and other common farm activities that may trigger Clean Water Act liability and permit requirements. Farmers said they also feared the proposed rule would open farmers and ranchers to lawsuits by environmental activist groups.

Farm Bureau leaders requested an extension of the comment period for the proposed rule by at least 30 days, to allow additional time to respond. The current deadline for comments is July 21.

Nearly every California representative with whom Farm Bureau members met last week agreed to officially request that the EPA grant an extension to the comment period. More than 230 members of Congress have already signed a coalition letter to the agencies urging that the proposed rule be withdrawn.

During the trip, about 20 Farm Bureau leaders and Leadership Farm Bureau class members met with members of Congress to discuss the Clean Water Act expansion and other issues. Farm Bureau members expressed the critical need for drought legislation (see related story) and described the importance of repairing the nation's broken immigration system.

For more information about the waters of the U.S. proposed rule under the Clean Water Act, see the American Farm Bureau "Ditch the Rule" page at http://ditchtherule.fb.org/.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.