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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

New clean water rules are coming. EPA and Army Corps hear from farmers tired of changing rules

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Jonathan Ahl / Harvest Public Media
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A roadside ditch in Phelps County, Missouri, which routinely floods. Critics of new definitions of Waters of the United States could include areas like this and make land subject to regulations. Supporters say watersheds are connected, and the definitions should be broad and the regulations tight.

A series of virtual roundtable discussions are underway regarding the Waters of the United States definition. But the input might not change much about what comes next.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers are listening to feedback on how they implement clean water rules, as what’s considered a regulated body of water could soon change again.

Late last year, the EPA proposed changes to the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) definition, which would add many bodies of water to federal regulations that were removed during the Trump administration.

That proposal drew the ire of many farming interests, including some of the attendees at a virtual forum on Monday, including Megan Dwyer, director of conservation and nutrient stewardship with the Illinois Corngrowers Association.

“Expanding the scope of working lands that fall under WOTUS does not equate to fixing a problem,” Dwyer said. “Farmers need clarity and certainty on any rule. But more than that, we need practical and reasonable strategies to continue to implement conservation practices, preserving infrastructure and ensuring true navigable waters are protected.”

The argument many farmers are making is that which rivers, streams, creeks and wetlands are included in the WOTUS definition, and therefore the Clean Water Act regulations, change too often as presidential administrations shift.

They also contend it discourages farmers from participating in environmentally friendly efforts like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

“By expanding the definitions of Waters of the U.S., and regulating ag like it’s a closed loop factory, EPA and the Army Corps may actually make it more difficult for farmers to continue to improve water quality,” said Ray Gaesser, who farms 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans in southwest Iowa.

But the changes to the WOTUS rules may be a done deal. The public comment period for that change ended months before the virtual roundtables started.

“The public comment period on that proposal closed on February 7th, and we are reviewing the comments we received,” said Navis Bermundez, deputy assistant administrator with the EPA, while kicking off Monday’s forum.

“While we cannot consider any new information provided here today as part of that process, we look forward to hearing your feedback and experiences with how we have implemented that term so that we can do a better job of making sure we all have access to clean water going forward,” she said.

The implementation of the rules could be just as important as changing the definition of which bodies of water are included in the federal regulations.

Environmental interests are pushing for strong and strict implementation.

“Our wastewater treatment facilities are not able to manage and process waste and materials that they weren’t designed to do 100 years ago,” said Mila Marshall with the Illinois Sierra Club. “Industry [needs to be] held accountable for releasing toxins and pollutants into drinking water systems.”

Agriculture is one of the industries that environmentalists want to see held to high standards for clean water. Nutrient runoff and soil erosion are among the pollutants that threaten waterways.

Some of the feedback is calling for the agriculture 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 with the Kansas Sierra Club.

The virtual roundtables will continue through June 24. Final changes to the definition of Waters of the United States and how rules are implemented will likely be announced by the end of the year.

Jonathan Ahl reports from the Rolla Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio.
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