Farmers Urge EPA To "Ditch The Rule"

Jul 3, 2014

And now a story about farmers and water. It’s a common and often contentious issue out here in the West. Well now farmers across the country are also riled up. That’s because the U.S. EPA wants to revise the clean water act. As Correspondent Chris Lehman explains depending on who you talk to these revisions are either a “land grab” under the “brute force” of the federal government or a simple clarification of rules that ensure all Americans have clean water to drink.

Angela Bailey farms decorative trees and shrubs near Gresham, Oregon.
Credit Photo by Chris Lehman. / Northwest News Network

Talk to just about anyone familiar with these proposed EPA water rules and sooner or later they'll mention this Youtube video. It was put together by a Missouri farm family.

Voice on video: "That's enough, that's enough, no more power plays. That's enough, that's enough. We won't back away."

If you’re a parent, you probably know the oscar winning tune. It’s from the Disney hit "Frozen." But in this politically charged version the lyrics urge the government to "Let it Go" when it comes to its proposed revision of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Voice on video: "Don't need more government anyway…"

Stoner: “The Clean Water Act is the basic law that protects water bodies across the United States from pollution.”

That’s Nancy Stoner. She’s the top water administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency. She says two Supreme Court rulings in the past decade muddied the waters when it comes to what’s actually protected by the 40 year old law and clarification is needed. But she says…

Stoner: "There's no new types of waters included.”

Instead, she says the EPA simply wants to spell out that the law covers all rivers and streams including those that run dry during the summer - something more common out here in the west. That argument isn’t swaying the critics though. The American Farm Bureau has launched a campaign with a rallying cry of “Ditch the Rule.” That’s because the bureau believes the new rules could apply to ditches and even puddles.

Bailey: "That's kind of scary when you're a farmer."

That’s Angela Bailey. She grows decorative trees and shrubs on land that's been in her family for nearly a century. Their small plot of land is in rolling hills about 20 miles east of downtown Portland. As she shows me around her farm, she points to a low point that we're standing in. If we came here during a rainy winter, she says we'd be in the middle of a big puddle.

Bailey: "But nothing really more than a puddle by my estimation. Maybe at its worst, maybe water that comes up to my ankle."

Bailey says there are more than a dozen low places around her farm where water collects like this after heavy rains. She says it typically evaporates or seeps into the ground. But she says she's not sure whether these normally dry spots would be subject to regulation under the new rules. If they are, that could mean costly and drawn-out environmental assessments and permits for any farm work done near these transient patches of water.

Bailey: "I do feel like there's a lot of uncertainty associated with the proposed rule."

Stoner: "We didn't change the definition of wetland."

That's the EPA’s Nancy Stoner again. She reiterates that the revisions are only clarifying the rules to include the smallest streams, connected wetlands and rivers that can dry up during the summer months.

Stoner: "Some of those are streams that flow seasonally or after rainfall events. Those are very important to protect."

Chris Lehman: "Do these waters have to have a connection to the downstream flow? Is that sort of the deciding point?"

Stoner: "Absolutely."

So that would seem to rule out the now-you-see-them, now-you-don't puddles on Angela Bailey's farm. But despite repeated reassurances from the EPA, agricultural advocates believe the government has something more up its sleeve. Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader blasted the agency during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.

Schrader: "This is ludicrous. I mean, I don't anyone with a straight face can say that this is anything but a huge grab of jurisdictional power at the end of the day."

Schrader is a Democrat in an agricultural swing district. He’s joined a largely Republican opposition to the new rules. These critics say it’s more government intrusion into farming practices and control of what people can do with their own land. The opposition campaign has drummed up so much of an outcry that the EPA extended a public comment period through October instead of ending it this month. But supporters of the pending regulations are also raising their voice, including coffee shop owner Matt Milletto.

Milletto: "Coffee, when it's brewed, is made up of 98% water."

Milletto’s bustling java joint is a stone's throw from the Willamette River in Portland. That puts him literally downstream from Angela Bailey, the nursery owner we met earlier. Milletto says it's important for his business to reduce even the potential for pollution in the upstream water supply.

Milletto: "We're greatly affected, being a beverage-focused company, with not only actual clean water but with the public's assurance that water's clean and what they're drinking's clean."

The debate over the best way to make that happen may extend well beyond October when the public comment period ends. That’s because opponents in Congress have vowed to take it to the House and Senate floor and simply overturn the new rules. It’s not clear at this point if they would have the votes to do that.

When it comes to clean water, states do have their own regulations that can complement or sometimes exceed federal rules. In Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality regulates waterways. Jane Hickman of that agency's Water Quality Division says it's possible the expanded federal definition of waterways will have minimal impact in Oregon. That's because the state's definition of a regulated waterway is already broader than the proposed federal version.

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