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Restore historic protections to waters of the United States

August 20, 2014

One would expect that, living close to the land, farmers would embrace environmental conservation and stewardship. And while many farmers deserve praise for doing so, regrettably, this is not always the case. One need only look at the controversy surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed rule to clarify what Waters of the United States they protect and do not protect as defined in the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, and the act’s subsequent amendments. The proposal, which has come to be called the WOTUS rule, is in our opinion modest and balanced, yet critics, including powerful farming and ranching organizations, have engaged in wild exaggeration and have based their objections on a number of points that are just not true.

If you have any doubt about agriculture’s potential (and actual) impact on water quality, consider this: agricultural runoff (phosphorus and nitrogen found both in animal waste and used in chemical-based fertilizers) is considered a primary cause of this month’s toxic algae bloom (cyanobacteria) in Lake Erie. Concern about serious health consequences forced the shutdown of the drinking water system in Toledo, OH, located on Lake Erie. The bright green algae bloom was so large it could be seen from space. One look at this ought to make clear that it really is time for all farmers to get on board and accept as necessary commonsense rules to protect our waters.
Yet, industrial farms, the corporations that serve them and the organizations that speak for them (often called by the umbrella name, Big Ag) far too often use their muscle and lobbyists to stand in the way of environmental laws that were precisely written for Big Ag in the first place.

Pennsylvania offers a case in point where the proposed WOTUS rule is concerned. “Despite statements to the contrary, the changes suggested by EPA and the Corps of Engineers would expand their authority by allowing the agencies to regulate land activities around small creeks, streams and even ditches that only hold water during heavy rain events,” said PA Farm Bureau President Carl T. Shaffer in June. Rumors abound that farmers would need a permit for their cows to cross a stream or for farming activities in floodplains. (Both rumors are not true.)