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Redefining WOTUS: What Farmers Should Know

On June 9th, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that the Navigable Waters Protection Rule was significantly reducing clean water safeguards. 

As a result, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a motion that requested a remand of the rule, in turn, creating a bit of confusion about what exactly this means for farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the nation.  

Will it be a completely new water rule, or will it simply revise the one currently in place? Should farmers continue to follow the guidelines set by the Navigable Waters Protection Rule or is that no longer in effect?  

The EPA outlined several priorities when it comes to reassessing the definition of WOTUS and reforming the Navigable Waters Protection Rule under an updated version of the Clean Water Act. Major initiatives include:  

  • Protecting water resources and communities under the Clean Water Act.
  • Reviewing the latest science on the impacts of climate change on U.S. waters.
  • Creating practical implementation strategies for state and Tribal partners.
  • Utilizing input received from landowners and the agricultural community.

But the question still remains—how will new water rule regulations affect farmers and landowners?  

As of this writing, that remains to be seen. However, industry leaders and lawmakers have many opinions and insights into the matter. An overwhelming majority are vocalizing the importance of getting input from farmers and ranchers in order to ensure that future reform does not make their job of providing for our nation more difficult. 

Industry Leaders and Lawmakers Urge Agriculture to be a part of WOTUS Rule Reform 

One thing we know at this time is that the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which was enacted last year, will remain in place until the EPA is ready to replace it. According to the Chief Environment Officer at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, that won’t be for some time.  

“WOTUS is not on [the latest unified regulatory] agenda for the next six months. So, if you play out the timing there, we’ve got a year or probably closer to two years before anything is going to happen on that front. What we’re doing right now at NCBA is making sure we have a voice within the agency and make sure that whatever path moves forward that it’s informed by the livestock, row crop, and all the agricultural stakeholders impacted by the regulations.”  

– Scott Yager, Chief Environment Officer at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA)

Fortunately, there are many lawmakers aware of the importance of bringing agriculture to the table for water rule reform discussions. On June 25, 2021, 126 Congress members signed a letter sent to EPA Administrator Michael Regan that echoed these concerns. 

Regulation of the Nation’s waters must be done in a manner that responsibly protects the environment without unnecessary and costly expansion of the Federal government in order to prevent unreasonable and burdensome regulations and to protect small businesses, farmers, and families. 

– Excerpt from the congressional letter sent to EPA Administrator Michael Regan

Read the full letter here. 

According to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, that is precisely what EPA Administrator Michael Regan intends to do.  

“I know what he wants to be able to do…he wants to listen and learn, and he wants to make sure as they recraft this rule, they do in a way that responds to the concerns and the realities on the ground.” 

– Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary

While the future is unclear, one certainty is resolute. The voices of agriculture must be heard and heeded during legislative reform that could impact their ability to keep our domestic food supply strong. Fortunately, it seems as though the EPA agrees. On June 30th, the agency announced it would be collecting feedback and recommendations from stakeholders through public meetings. Ag organizations like the National Farmers Union provided remarks, pointing out that few understand the importance of clean water than the American Farmer and highlighting the need for a broader definition of jurisdictional waters under the Clean Water Act.

However, on August 30, 2021, a federal judge for the District of Arizona ruled against the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, stating there were “fundamental, substantive flaws” in the currently enacted legislation that threatened the “possibility of serious environmental harm” if it remained in place. According to the New York Times, with both the Obama-era and Trump-era policies repealed, a 1986 regulatory definition of WOTUS is would take their place. Historically, farmers and environmentalists alike found this past WOTUS definition to be highly contradictory and poorly written. In fact, it resulted in thousands of legal disputes over water pollution that dragged on for years.

According to current EPA administrator Michael Regan, the new water rule is currently under development. He anticipates a proposal to restore Obama-era WOTUS definitions could be issued as soon as this November with a new proposal redefining WOTUS in 2022. Ag groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation are voicing their concerns, stressing the importance for farmers to “have a rule that is fair and doesn’t require a team of attorneys to interpret.”

This ruling casts uncertainty over farmers and ranchers across the country and threatens the progress they’ve made to responsibly manage water and natural resources.

Zippy Duvall, President of American Farm Bureau Federation

AgAmerica will continue to monitor the progression of this anticipated reform closely and provide updates for farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners through the AgAmerica trade and legislation page. 

You can also sign up for AgAmerica’s newsletter to stay informed on the latest legislative updates happening in the agriculture industry. 

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