EPA moves to rescind Waters of the U.S. rule

Farm groups applaud; environmentalists oppose

Rural stream
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

WASHINGTON — Farm groups are praising a recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to withdraw the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) final rule.

The EPA and the USACE now begin a replacement rulemaking process to gather input and re-evaluate the definition of WOTUS.

Two-step process

Earlier this year, President Trump issued an executive order, directing EPA and USACE to propose a rule rescinding or revising the final 2015 WOTUS rule.

“We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses,” said Administrator Scott Pruitt in a release from the EPA Office of Water.

This is the first step in a two-step process EPA is taking to redefine “waters of the U.S.,” said Pruitt.

According to the EPA, the proposed rule would recodify the identical regulatory text that was in place prior to the 2015 Clean Water Rule and that is currently in place as a result of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s stay of the 2015 rule. This action, when final, will not change current practice with respect to how the definition applies.

The agencies have also begun the second step of rulemaking involving a re-evaluation and revision of the definition of “waters of the United States” following the Executive Order.

Farm groups applaud

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said in a release that he is pleased Administrator Pruitt and the EPA listened to farmers’ concerns.

“With a rewrite of the WOTUS rule, I look forward to seeing a rule that recognizes and respects the environmental strides taken by the American farmer and rancher,” said Roberts.

“This is great news for America’s pork producers,” said National Pork Producers Council President Ken Maschhoff, a pork producer from Carlyle, Illinois. “The WOTUS rule was a dramatic government overreach and an unprecedented expansion of federal authority over private lands,” he said.

The National Pork Producers Council  said based on several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, EPA’s jurisdiction had included “navigable” waters and waters with a significant hydrologic connection to navigable waters. But the WOTUS rule broadened that to include, among other water bodies, upstream waters and intermittent and ephemeral streams such as the kind farmers use for drainage and irrigation. It also covered lands adjacent to such waters.

“The goal of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the integrity of the nation’s waters. The 2015 rule moved us further away from that goal,” said Wesley Spurlock, president of the National Corn Growers Association and Texas farmer.

“Repealing it is an important first step toward providing farmers the certainty and clarity we have long desired,” he said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Tex., said the announcement is “…an important first step to getting the federal government out of America’s backyards, fields and ditches…”

But there is still work to be done, as the case of California farmer John Duarte highlights the need to re-evaluate and revise enforcement of the Clean Water Act and WOTUS to protect farmers from onerous fines and penalties, said Conaway.

“I have confidence this administration will get the policy right and allow farmers and ranchers to be the capable stewards of the land they’ve always been,” he said.

“This is another great step in the right direction…” said  National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Craig Uden. However, he noted it’s important to remember the rule isn’t dead yet, and NCBA will continue to submit and solicit comments on behalf of America’s cattle producers.

Not a fan

However, some environmentalist groups are not thrilled with EPA’s decision.

A statement from Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said “although far from perfect, the Clean Water Rule was a step in the right direction; now Trump wants to take giant steps backwards in clean water protections, back to the days of massive fish kills and rivers on fire.”

Hauter added, “Trump is firmly cementing his place in history as the worst environmental president to ever hold office.”  

Environment Ohio, a statewide, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organization, said “Repealing the Clean Water Rule turns the mission of the EPA on its head…”

The group stated the Clean Water Rule restored federal protection for 60 percent or 51,000 miles of Ohio streams that feed waterways and provide drinking water. The rule also protects wetlands and wildlife habitats.

Environment Ohio is calling on the EPA to reconsider.

Comment period

The Trump administration’s proposed withdrawal will require a 30-day public comment period, after which EPA and the Army Corps would have to consider the reaction and the make a final decision — which likely will draw suits from groups that favor the regulation.

Congressman Bob Gibbs said the EPA should treat farmers, ranchers, homebuilders, local governments, or state environmental agencies as collaborators in drafting a new WOTUS rule and should take all their opinions into account.

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