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May 2006

Regulating Every Drop of Water Doesn't Make Sense

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

American farmers and ranchers have a good track record of taking care of the land and water through conservation, including wetlands protection and restoration.  That’s why Farm Bureau is closely watching and awaiting a decision currently before the U.S. Supreme Court that could alter the Clean Water Act as we know it.

Turning the Tide

At issue are two consolidated cases, Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Rapanos v. United States. The combined case, on which a decision is expected in early July, looks at whether wetlands should be subject to Clean Water Act protection based on remote or non-existent connections to navigable waters. In the Carabell situation, a lower court ruled that a wetland separated by a man-made berm from a ditch that connects through tributaries to navigable waters qualifies for Clean Water Act protection, even though there’s no hydrological connection between the two.

Farm Bureau strongly believes that man-made drainage ditches, fields and pastures that have been used by farmers and ranchers for years should not be federally regulated in the same way as rivers, streams, swamps and bogs.  Regulating a field with a few low spots is not logical. We would be turning the tide on common sense.

Further, if the Clean Water Act is extended to include ditches, stock tanks, and long-used fields and pastures, then the federal government will be regulating every drop of water that falls in this country, regardless of how far removed and isolated those droplets are from a stream, river or other substantial body of water.

A Duck by Any Other Name

So, who is behind this? I call them ‘big money’ groups, who parade around photos of cute ducks swimming in a pond and tell folks that farmers and ranchers are responsible for harming wildlife.  Many of these same people believe dips and depressions that are never muddy enough to bog down a truck need the same type of protection as rivers, lakes and marshy areas that the rest of us think of as traditional wetlands.  These people see a wetland where you and I see a field, ditch or wet area around a stock tank.

Considering that farmers and ranchers usually live on or very near their land, it’s in their best interests to ensure its quality as well as that of the water they and their family members use on a daily basis. If the Clean Water Act is allowed to extend to all fields, ditches and man-made puddles, it would affect mostly private cropland or pastures that have been maintained by farmers for generations. 

The Supreme Court examined the Rapanos and Carabell cases from the standpoint of housing and industrial business development.  But just as the development of businesses could be halted by the expansion of the Clean Water Act, agriculture is another enterprise that could come to an end if ordinary fields and pastures are deemed wetlands or navigable waters.

It won’t matter how much time or money a farmer has spent improving and caring for the land if the Clean Water Act is extended to cover every drop of water that falls on the property.  The land would be made worse off by regulations intended to do just the opposite.