Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency held its first stakeholder roundtable on its new Waters of the U.S. rule, and I sure hope it wasn’t a sample of what’s to come. The group lacked diversity of experience in agriculture, and few of the participants had any direct experience with the quagmire of Clean Water Act regulation. This was a missed opportunity for EPA, and we are urging them to seek out and listen to all viewpoints.
You have often heard me talk about the importance of agriculture having a seat at the table, and the administration has agreed that the farmer's voice is critical to this rulemaking process. But simply checking a box without hearing from farmers who can speak from experience will not do.
Water is the lifeblood of agriculture, and farmers across the country are taking proactive steps to protect water on and around our farms. We have been straightforward and consistent in our call for clear rules because we know how important it is to get regulations right, especially ones that impact the lives and livelihoods of so many. All farmers should be able to look out on their land and know what’s regulated, so we can continue to protect our natural resources while growing a sustainable food supply. EPA’s proposed WOTUS rule instead casts uncertainty over farmers and ranchers across the country and threatens the progress we have made to responsibly manage water and natural resources.
Let’s recap how the proposed rule reaches beyond the protection of shared, navigable waters. It would give the federal government the ability to regulate areas such as ditches, ephemeral drainages, or low spots on farmlands and pastures that are not even wet most of the year and that do not connect to flowing waterways. This would subject ordinary farming activities to complex and burdensome regulations. Simple activities like moving dirt, plowing or building fences would require permits, and getting a federal permit can take months or even years and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A farmer shouldn’t need a team of lawyers to grow crops and raise animals, but these unclear and overbroad regulations could lead to large civil fines as well as criminal charges.
Farmers, ranchers and all landowners deserve clear rules and a system that respects voluntary conservation efforts. Practices like no till and conservation tillage that reduce soil erosion and keep nutrients in the soil are becoming common practice, now being used on more than half of the corn, cotton, soybean and wheat planted across the nation. That’s more than 200 million acres. The use of cover crops—another important tool in protecting water and promoting soil health—also continues to grow, increasing 50% between 2012 and 2017, according to the last USDA Census of Agriculture. And farmers use several other tools and techniques to protect waterways and reduce runoff, such as buffer strips, protective zones between fields and waterways; strip cropping, growing alternating strips of erosion-resistant crops; and terraces, using slopes to help filter water and reduce erosion. We will continue to hold the administration to their commitment to bring farmers to the table and to treat us as partners in our sustainability efforts.
It is no secret that Farm Bureau was extremely disappointed in EPA’s decision to repeal the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which brought much needed clarity to farmers. But if the EPA is going to continue forward, they must ensure that the process truly offers the opportunity for meaningful engagement and feedback from all stakeholders. Future roundtables must present the perspective of active farmers and be better organized and managed. Otherwise, EPA is doing nothing more than muddying the waters in this rulemaking.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.