In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, USDA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, over 70 food and agriculture stakeholder groups requested more time to comment on EPA’s proposed interpretive rule on waters of the United States.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April issued a proposed rule that would greatly expand the agencies’ authority under the CWA over various waters. Currently, that jurisdiction includes “navigable” waters and waterways with a hydrologic connection to navigable waters. The rule would redefine “waters of the United States” to include intermittent and ephemeral streams, which could potentially affect agriculture, requiring, for example, CWA permits for the use of manure on cropland.
Citing the complexity of EPA’s draft rule, the groups maintain that comprehensive comments that represent the best interests of farmers and other publics involved will require “deep and substantial review of lengthy and complex documents… and careful consideration and thought into the potentially significant changes to the historical relationship enjoyed between the agricultural community and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
In requesting the extensions, the agricultural groups pointed out that an EPA study of the connection between intermittent waters and wetlands and larger bodies of water has yet to be completed.
The groups also pointed to the need for farmers to discern what the rule would mean for them on the ground level. “The key step in all this is the middle one: farmers and ranchers working out in the field and on their farms to determine what these proposed policies mean,” wrote the groups.
“Unfortunately, the timing of this proposed rule and the 90-day comment period coincides exactly with the absolutely busiest period in the farm calendar. Our farmer members during this period are preparing soil for planting, planting and replanting seed, applying crop nutrients and crop protection products, and harvesting hay and winter wheat crops. All of this work is taking place this spring and early summer, and that necessarily limits their ability to review and understand the proposal and the Interpretative Rule and how they may apply to them on their farms, and then provide meaningful comments.”
The agricultural groups also raised in their request concerns that EPA has made during stakeholder meetings statements on the rules that it then has contradicted in public pronouncements, complicating the groups’ ability to develop meaningful comments.
The organizations are asking for an additional 90 days beyond the July 21, 2014, deadline for submitting comments on the proposed rule, or 90 days after EPA releases its “Connectivity Report,” which is supposed to serve as the scientific basis for any expansion of CWA jurisdiction.
For the agricultural exemptions rule, the groups are requesting that the comment deadline coincide with the closing date for the proposed rule but be at least an additional 45 days beyond the current June 5, 2014, deadline.