Last week Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad held a special roundtable meeting in Des Moines attended by the state's ag, business and government agency leaders. They discussed WOTUS -- the proposed "Waters of the U.S." rule being pushed for by officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Representatives from 20 organizations took part and gave their view at the Iowa roundtable. They represented agriculture, economic development, conservation, home building, utilities, drainage districts, and government agencies including the Iowa Department of Transportation, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship. They offered a surprisingly consistent evaluation of the proposed WOTUS rule. Without exception, everyone around the table agreed the rule should either be withdrawn or significantly rewritten with input from the businesses affected.
Why EPA is being urged to withdraw the proposal
The EPA proposal aims to clarify which waterways fall under federal oversight. EPA wants to redefine navigable waters subject to federal Clean Water Act regulations.
But the wording of the proposed rule is unclear and it is confusing, say Iowa farmers, and others who took part in the September 29 roundtable. The proposed new rule could be interpreted as applying to ditches, wetlands and a wide range of other features on Iowa landscapes. The rule would also extend regulatory oversight to areas that may hold or conduct water only once in a while, such as after a heavy rain.
The rule, if adopted, would add bureaucratic layers, making it more difficult for farmers and others to install and use soil conservation practices that improve water quality. It would likely force farmers to apply for permits for normal farming practices such as building a fence, installing a grass waterway, applying fertilizer or spraying weeds. It also has potential to slow the tremendous progress farmers continue to make with voluntary conservation efforts.
That is the collective opinion of farm and other organization leaders who have read the proposed rule and have been closely following this issue since last spring when EPA introduced the proposal. It's also the opinion of ag law experts, such as Dr. Roger McEowen, a professor at Iowa State University's Center For Ag Law & Taxation.
EPA officials say the rule will not harm agriculture
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy in Washington D.C. has said the rule does not expand the agency's authority and that all normal farming practices are exempt. EPA Region 7 administrator Karl Brooks, based in Kansas City, has made several trips to Iowa in recent months attempting to assure farmers they should not be worried about this proposed new rule. But at the governor's roundtable meeting last week all 20 of the groups represented said the EPA's proposed rule is too ambiguous.
After listening for 90 minutes, Gov. Branstad concluded the rule would be "harmful to the good work going on in Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy as well as with Iowa's business community, without providing clear evidence it would improve water quality." He also stated, "It's been my experience, that the further away you are from a situation the less likely you are to propose an effective solution. EPA obviously doesn't understand how the real world works."
Deadline to submit public comment is quickly approaching
Public comments on the proposed rule must be submitted to EPA by November 14.
If you want to submit public comments, here are some suggested talking points, offered by the Iowa Corn Growers Association, regarding the proposed WOTUS rule:
• EPA's proposed definitions are so unclear that farmers are now even more unsure than before whether their property is subject to EPA jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
• EPA is attempting to expand its jurisdiction not only beyond the intent of the Clean Water Act, but also beyond the bounds established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
• The new rule would include a vast number of ditches within federal EPA oversight, which is just going too far.
• Farmers will be required to get a federal permit or face potential legal action by continuing normal farming practices, such as fertilizer or pesticide application, near drainage features made jurisdictional under the new rule.
Would increase costs for farmers and landowners
Ray Gaesser, a southwest Iowa farmer and American Soybean Association president, said his work with ASA has brought together representatives from 30 state soybean organizations who have concluded the rule would create obstacles and increase costs for farmers and landowners. In addition to the Iowa Soybean Association, other groups attending and providing input at the governor's discussion included the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Cattlemen's Association and Iowa Farm Bureau.
Roger Zylstra, chairman of the Iowa Corn Growers, shared ICGA's concerns that this rule has created additional uncertainty for farmers and seems to extend EPA's jurisdiction further up the watershed. All the groups represented at the meeting shared common concerns about the proposed rule. This included the Land Improvement Contractors Association, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa State Extension, Iowa Drainage District Association, Iowa League of Cities, the Chamber Alliance, Iowa Limestone Producers, the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, Iowa Association of Business and Industry and the Home Builders of Iowa.
Urges farmers to tell EPA to "ditch the water rule"
Joel Brinkmeyer, CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, is concerned the new rule could require farmers to obtain a federal permit anytime they want to apply fertilizer. "We believe strongly that this rule cannot be amended to be fixed," he says. "It needs to be ditched."
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture recently voted to ask EPA to drop the proposed rule, rather than try to alter it. "This rule, from our point of view, isn't even fixable, certainly not with the attitude the EPA has right now," says Northey.
State ag secretaries have added their opposition
Thus, even the bipartisan association of state secretaries and commissioners of agriculture has passed a resolution criticizing EPA's proposed WOTUS rule. It was a unanimous vote, with both Democrats and Republicans in agreement, as the highest ranking agricultural officials in each state are urging EPA to withdraw the proposal and start from scratch.
Northey says there was little support for EPA's proposal at the NASDA annual meeting Sept. 12-13, which was held this year in Vermont. "As we talked through the issue at our annual meeting, we all were pretty unified and decided the proposed rule just goes too far from being what it should be," adds Northey. "The state ag secretaries and ag commissioners from around the U.S. are also troubled by the fact that EPA has been unresponsive to the concerns of agriculture on this issue."
Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have backed farmers and farm organizations in their stand against the EPA on this matter. The U.S. House recently voted on and easily passed a bill that would sink EPA's proposed WOTUS rule. However, it's doubtful if that bill will go anywhere in the Senate. In fact, it's doubtful whether the bill will even be introduced for the Senate's consideration, as Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is blocking it.