Is the Clean Water Act under attack?

Big Ag wants rollbacks in fundamental legislation.


In Washington, DC, last Thursday, the House Committee on Agriculture held a small hearing on an obscure permitting rule under the Clean Water Act. But in that hearing chamber rumbled the voice of Big Agriculture girding for a fight against federal regulation of the nation’s waters.

The Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry hosted the hearing to discuss a so-called interpretive rule the feds issued in March. The rule clarifies exemptions to the Clean Water Act enjoyed by farmers, ranchers and foresters when it comes to digging out or filling in waterways. However, the rule has earned the ire of major agricultural lobbies and is caught up in the current political climate of Washington, pitting opponents of President Obama against his regulators.

These might seem like just more quibbling between our elected leaders and federal regulators, but at stake is clean water and how it is protected, particularly in the arid West, where waterways defy old legal definitions. Ranchers and farmers fear losing authority over their ditches and fields, but other Western water users—boaters, anglers and other sportsmen—see a chance for better execution of the Clean Water Act, one that might better preserve rivers, wetlands and other critical habitat for wildlife.

Agriculture is concerned over the EPA's water rules, but ag is the only industry with exemptions under the Clean Water Act. Photo by Flickr user Sam Beebe.

Thursday’s hearing provided a platform to groups like the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation to hammer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its attempts to clarify agricultural exemptions for “normal farming” practices. Regulators say they hope to better define these exemptions to better keep up with modern farming and soil conservation practices.

Yet agriculture industry representatives say the rule does more harm than good. In statements typical of Thursday’s events, Don Parrish, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said regulators had “confused policymakers, the media, and farmers and ranchers” and had narrowed—not just clarified—exemptions.

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