The newly proposed waters of the U.S. rule is meant to provide clarity and certainty for farmers to do what they do, which is farm, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told members of the North American Agricultural Journalists conference Monday morning.
“EPA’s intent was not to increase permitting burden,” McCarthy said. “It was actually to try to reduce that by providing more clarity through the process itself." If a farmer was not legally required to have a permit before, the rule does not change that permit status moving forward, she explained.
McCarthy elaborated on what the rule does and doesn’t do. Most importantly the rule exempts current normal farming activities including plowing, seeding and cultivating. It also includes 56 approved conservation practices agreed to with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Specifically she said it will not expand the scope of EPA’s jurisdiction over U.S. farmland and will not regulate groundwater or tile drainage systems. EPA is not taking over additional lands or authority over ditches. It also excludes any ditch that could carry ephemeral waterways.
She also added that the rule is “not a land grab” and she recognized that water is a highly localized issue.
Some criticisms have come from the list of 56 conservation practices, as it could potentially make other practices more likely to be regulated. McCarthy explained the list was a way of using USDA’s conservation programs to allow farmers not to have to ask if those practices could be considered “normal farming practices.”
The complaints about the 56 exemptions acting as a narrowing of exemptions was overridden by McCarthy who said a proposed interpretative rule with USDA actually would allow the agencies to recognize new conservation practices without having to reopen or re-clarify the waters of the U.S.
“All we’re trying to say is let’s keep adding to that 56 so [farmers] never have to ask, never have to worry about narrowing exemptions,” she said. “If we didn’t phrase it right, tell me how, because that’s what we want to do.”
McCarthy noted that this is not a final proposal. “It is the start of another level of dialogue with the agricultural community and other stakeholders to make sure we can all get behind a final rule moving forward,” she said.
McCarthy said she plans to meet with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. Thursday and welcomed the discussion. NCBA, as well as many major agricultural groups, have been critical of EPA on the rule.
She said she plans to work hard to have conversations with agricultural groups to understand how they’re reading the rule differently or at least in a different way than EPA. McCarthy said EPA spent an awful lot of time trying to mature the rule in the process with USDA. She suggested everybody needs to “take a little bit of a deep breath and read it in as much detail.”
She said if adjustments need to be made, the agency certainly will based on comments received.
“Part of the challenge we have is that EPA does not have a trusting relationship with the ag community,” McCarthy said, who also pointed out she’s been working hard to fix those ties. “The issues we’re dealing with are too important to let history drive the outcome. Let’s let science drive the outcomes and see how we can work together to solve these issues.”