The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers are listening to feedback on how they enforce clean water rules, as what is considered a regulated body of water may soon change to new.
Late last year, the EPA proposed changes to the Waters Definition of the United States (WOTUS), which would add many bodies of water to federal regulations that were removed under the Trump administration.
The proposal has drawn ire from many agricultural interests, including some of the participants in a virtual forum on Monday, including Megan Dwyer, director of conservation and nutrient management at the Illinois Corngrowers Association.
“Expanding the scope of working lands that fall under WOTUS is not the same as solving a problem,” Dwyer said. “Farmers need clarity and certainty on any rule. But more than that, we need practical and sensible strategies to continue to implement conservation practices, preserving infrastructure and ensuring that truly navigable waters are protected.
The argument made by many farmers is that rivers, creeks, streams and wetlands are included in the WOTUS definition, and therefore Clean Water Act regulations, change too often as Presidential administrations change.
They also argue that it discourages farmers from participating in environmentally friendly efforts like the conservation reserve improvement program.
“By expanding definitions of U.S. waters and regulating agriculture as if it were a closed-loop factory, the EPA and Army Corps could actually make it harder for farmers to continue to improve water quality,” said Ray Gaesser, who farms 5,000 acres. corn and soybeans in southwestern Iowa.
But the changes to the WOTUS rules could be a done deal. The public comment period for this change ended months before the start of the virtual roundtables.
“The public comment period on this proposal ended Feb. 7, and we are considering the comments we received,” said Navis Bermundez, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator, at the launch of Monday’s forum.
“While we cannot consider the new information provided here today as part of this process, we look forward to your feedback and experiences on how we have implemented this term so that we can make a better work to ensure that we all have access to clean products. water in the future,” she said.
Implementing the rules could be just as important as changing the definition of water bodies included in federal regulations.
Environmental interests push for strong and strict enforcement.
“Our wastewater treatment facilities are unable to handle and process waste and materials they weren’t designed for 100 years ago,” said Mila Marshall of the Illinois Sierra Club. “Industry [needs to be] held responsible for the release of toxins and pollutants into drinking water systems.
Agriculture is one of the industries that environmentalists want to see meet high drinking water standards. Nutrient runoff and soil erosion are among the pollutants that threaten waterways.
Some of the comments call on the agricultural sector to take more responsibility by tying clean water practices to government subsidies like crop insurance.
“It seems to me that if the federal government is going to provide financial assistance to farmers, that we incorporate these conservation practices as a requirement,” said Zack Pistora of the Kansas Sierra Club.
The virtual roundtables will continue until June 24. Final changes to the definition of US waters and the implementation of the rules will likely be announced by the end of the year.