Clearing the Air

EPA Chief McCarthy Implores Ag for Help

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addresses a crowd of more than 150 agribusiness members and other representatives Thursday during the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City luncheon. McCarthy asked the agriculture industry to join EPA in making the Clean Water Act rule successful. (DTN photo by Todd Neeley)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (DTN) -- EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy knows she has a lot of damage to repair in the agency's relationship with agriculture -- a relationship that continues to be strained by a gap between what she said was the intent of the proposed Clean Water Act rule and the outcry coming from rural America.

McCarthy wrapped up a two-day tour across Missouri, first talking to farmers near Columbia and ending with a speech before the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City Thursday. The EPA head looked weary as she sat down for an interview with DTN prior to the Kansas City speech.

Farm groups have feared that the new rule would give EPA authority to regulate tributaries, streams, even ditches and small ponds, on U.S. farms, and that any farm activities around those structures that could, even tenuously, be linked to changes in water quality downstream would also be regulated.

EPA's relationship with agriculture has been strained on a number of fronts, and McCarthy said she realizes it won't be easy convincing farmers that nothing will change on the farm if the new rule is finalized.

She said the outcry from across farm country caught her by surprise. The U.S. Soybean Federation, in a statement earlier in the day, requested that EPA "demonstrate some agricultural common sense and goodwill," and throw out the CWA interpretive rule entirely.

"We really didn't see the changes we're making in this proposal as having a significant impact on the agriculture community," McCarthy said. "We have kept the exemptions and the exceptions that are currently in the law that allow farmers to keep performing those farm practices that they've always been doing."

There will be waters on ag land that are jurisdictional, meaning they could be regulated, she said. "It doesn't mean that as a result of this that you're going to need a permit for anything."

McCarthy said agriculture needs to provide information to her agency about specifics in the language causing concern.

"I'm not going to allow confusion to continue. We're just going to get the clarity we need in the end. But it'll be a process getting there."

McCarthy said she believes farmers and EPA are on the same page when it comes to protecting water.

"They're wanting certainty in the way we have written the rule," she told DTN. "How is it going to be implemented?" The agency needs to better understand agricultural practices "So that we can understand what waters might actually have a significant impact on downstream and waters that we don't need to worry about."

LUNCHEON CROWD

McCarthy told a luncheon crowd of more than 150 representatives of agribusinesses and non-profit groups that she recognizes not all farms are the same. "I'm beginning to understand the kind of conversations we need to have between EPA and the ag community," she said. "Nothing is easy. I know that no one understands the importance of water quality better than the agriculture community."

She said the time has come to change the notion that EPA and the agriculture community can't "come to an agreement."

McCarthy said EPA recognizes that the Clean Water Act has to take science into account when it comes to how small water bodies are connected to larger water bodies. The rule, she said, isn't about "connecting the dots."

"If cattle are crossing a wet field, don't get in their way," she said. "That's because they know that's a normal thing on the farm. We have not proposed changing any of that. The bottom line is if a farmer or rancher didn't need a permit for it, this (new rule) will not require a permit."

McCarthy said she was unaware how difficult it would be to define ditches for purposes of the rule. "Most of them don't look like a stream, and we can take them off the table," she said. "Help me put that into language."

The interpretative rule lists some 56 conservation practices that are exempt from the CWA requirements. Agriculture groups, members of Congress and others have expressed concern that common practices not listed are not exempt. McCarthy said that was not the intent of the rule.

"The 56 practices really are an attempt to clear the path for slam-dunk practices," she said. "It was not intended to narrow those. We put it in a separate rule so that we could add to it."

She called on agricultural leaders to help narrow "gray areas" in the laws not only to give farmers clarity, but also to limit citizen lawsuits often rooted in such areas.

"I think the most important message is that for the most part we're going to try to use the science to be as clear as we can, in those areas of discretion, we'll continue to have a dialogue," she said. "But it's going to be the same dialogue that people have always had."

One clarification she made to the crowd was the CWA rules have "never been just about navigable waters. It has been about all those waters that are upstream and feed those navigable waters, and how do we protect those.

"If you look at the ephemeral streams, the Clean Water Act has never just cared about those that have run 24 hours, every day, seven days a week, all the time," she said. "A lot of the streams, 60%, 70% of our streams don't run all the time. So I think it has been a surprise to some, but most of this has been in place for decades that people have lived with and haven't been bothered by."

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com.

Follow Todd on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN.

(GH/AG)

Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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