More than 100 people attended a listening session on July 30 to express concerns to EPA officials and ask questions about how the new rules may impact them.
The event, organized by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, was held at the LSU AgCenter Tom H. Scott Extension and Education Center in Winnsboro. A similar session was held on July 9 in Crowley.
At issue is the proposed redefinition of "waters of the U.S.," a term used in the Clean Water Act that dictates which bodies of water must comply with regulations set in the act. Currently, U.S. waters include those that are used for interstate or foreign commerce as well as wetlands.
There are gray areas, however, when it comes to seasonally flowing streams and non-jurisdictional waters that are adjacent to U.S. waters - two types of waters commonly found on farms.
According to EPA Region 6 administrator Ron Curry, the confusion prompted several Supreme Court decisions, which persuaded the EPA and Corps to clarify the definition of U.S. waters.
AgCenter Associate Vice Chancellor for Plant and Soil Sciences Rogers Leonard said, "This is one of the most critical issues facing Louisiana agriculture and sets the stage to define how farmers will be able to produce food and fiber in the future. Nearly all of Louisiana's upland farmland drains into a navigable waterway, so clarifying what can be classified waters of the U.S. and what limitations are placed upon that farmland are of grave concern to producers and landowners."
EPA regional director of water quality Bill Honker, said inconsistent applications of the current rule cost businesses time and money.
Different EPA regions, Corps districts and state governments have been making different determinations of which waters they should regulate.
In short, Honker said, it needs to be clear exactly which waters are subject to Clean Water Act regulations because they all affect what goes on downstream. Honker assured attendees that waters used in farming activities are exempt because agriculture does not impact water quality on the same scale as industrial waste, for example.
EPA officials insist the redefinition will not include any new types of water and that exemptions for agricultural practices will remain in place.
Typical uses of water on farms, such as ponds, irrigation and ditches, will not require a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
EPA agriculture adviser Eugene Thilstead said, "If you didn't have to get a permit for it yesterday, you won't have to get a permit tomorrow."
Nevertheless, some people are worried the clarified definition will increase the EPA's regulatory authority. Meeting participants raised concerns about agricultural ditches that are not jurisdictional but eventually drain into U.S. waters. Because the proposed rule includes waters with "a significant nexus" to anything defined as waters of the U.S., some farmers said they are unsure where jurisdiction stops and starts.
Thilstead also pointed out that even if jurisdictional waters are running through a farm, they remain exempt because they are used for agriculture. Further, the rule does not give the EPA power to regulate activities on land.
Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain told the gathering that his main concern, and one of many farmers, is that the EPA has set aside 56 specific conservation practices that are exempt from permitting requirements.
Strain said such practices are being developed constantly and conservation must be progressive. There needs to be a mechanism to get new practices exempted quickly, he said, and it should be done at the state level because of unique agricultural and water conditions.
Officials acknowledged that such practices help farmers be good stewards of the environment. Curry said the EPA realizes the significance of what farmers do.
Curry said, "The clarification is important to agricultural work, and our cooperation with the ag community is important. We want to see how farmers benefit waters of the U.S. and learn from them."
It is crucial to include farmers in this discussion, Curry said, because "we want to get this rule exactly right." Comments on the rule can be submitted until Oct. 20 at http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/CWAwaters.cfm#comment.
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