Farmers to EPA: Need Partners, Not Regs

Farmers Tell EPA They Need Partnerships to Improve Water Quality, Not More Regulation

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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The EPA on Monday hosted the second of 10 scheduled roundtables on the waters of the U.S. definitions. (DTN file photo)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Farmers taking part in the second of several roundtables on waters of the U.S. hosted by EPA told the agency on Monday that instead of top-down regulation, they need federal and state agencies to partner with agriculture to improve water quality.

The second of 10 scheduled roundtables was organized by the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, touted by EPA as a Midwest panel. The month of June will be a busy one for EPA with the remaining eight roundtables scheduled.

Ray Gaesser, a corn and soybean farmer from Corning, Iowa, said during the roundtable that a new WOTUS definition must be flexible enough to account for differences on each farm.

"If I can leave with one to take away today, agriculture is not a closed system," he said, "and we farmers are doing the best we can to feed everybody with the tools we have. And by expanding the definitions of waters of the U.S., EPA and the Army Corps may actually make it more difficult for farmers to continue to improve."

Gaesser said agriculture is not a "closed-loop system" in that "there's no certainty from one day to the next rather than one year to the next." Agriculture is diverse, he said, "within the United States, within my county and even on my own farm.

"To have a regulatory body that looks at the whole country and tries to make a rule that fits everyone," he said, "it just won't work. You must strike a balance between what's best for the country and allowing for state input and local variation. Both state and local voices are critically important."

Rod Snyder, agriculture adviser to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, told DTN in April the agency intends to put forward a proposed WOTUS rewrite yet this year.

All eyes also are on the second challenge of the Clean Water Act by Michael and Chantell Sackett, Sackett v EPA, likely up for oral arguments before the Supreme Court this fall, which could determine how the law will define wetlands and whether they are jurisdictional under federal law.

EPA has returned to the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS while working on a broader rewrite.

Illinois farmer Megan Dwyer, director of conservation and nutrient stewardship for the Illinois Corn Growers Association, said expanded regulation will not in itself improve water quality.

"If there was one message I'd like to convey today it's that farmers are looking for problem-solving partners," she said.

"Expanding the scope of working lands that fall under WOTUS does not equate to fixing a problem."

Dwyer said agriculture needs "practical and reasonable" strategies to continue implementing conservation practices, preserving structures and ensuring "true navigable waters" are protected.

Between 2019 and 2020, she said, $27 million was invested in conservation adoption from private sources.

"This is an example of the dedication of our farmers and conservation partners having been successful," Dwyer said.

"The protection of our waters is a shared responsibility between federal and state governments, and this relationship needs to be respected. We've already heard about significant geographical differences today. States are well equipped to understand the water concerns and best strategies to address those concerns."


North Dakota farmer Todd Leake, a National Farmers Union and Sierra Club member, said he joined the Sierra Club because of concern about the loss of wetlands and channelization of intermittent streams in his state.

"I live and farm in all the large basins in North Dakota; innumerable ephemeral slews and prairie potholes are adjacent to cropland that is fertilized with more modern working phosphate nitrogen in the form of anhydrous ammonia or urea fertilizer," Leake said.

"Spring runoff in summer rain events move large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, depositing phosphorus not only in wetlands but in natural and manmade water bodies in the basin."

Leake said he believes prairie potholes should be included in WOTUS definitions as protected waters.

He pointed to drainage issues with Devil's Lake Basin in northeast North Dakota as an example.

"Devil's Lake basin is an internal drainage basin culminating in Devil's Lake, which is known as 'Minnewaska' in Lakota language, and its largest natural body water in North Dakota," Leake said.

"Prairie potholes were drained into channel A, and in the early 1990s, increased rainfall caused the lake to double in size, resulting in permanent invasion of tens of thousands of acres of cropland, downstream farmland and the construction of hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure. Prairie potholes' natural surface storage, even when isolated, when drained, become part of the basin and result in increased downstream flooding."

Maisah Khan, policy director of the Mississippi River Network, said her group would like to see EPA expand the definition of WOTUS to protect all interests in the basin.

"What we do in the Midwest and the upper Mississippi River region has a profound impact on the lower river," she said.

"So, our perspective is protecting those tributary streams and wetlands needs to happen at the federal level with a level playing field that's provided by the Clean Water Act, that doesn't enable upstream states to push their water quality and flooding problems off on their downstream neighbors. We think that WOTUS definition should be more, not less expansive, especially given the impacts of climate change and our continuing acceleration of human activities like more groundwater withdrawal."

Khan said while efforts are ongoing to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen runoff in the basin, the river "continues to act as a conveyor belt" carrying nutrient pollution into the Gulf of Mexico.

"So, stronger protection of wetlands and ephemeral streams is really necessary to protect water quality in the Mississippi River, and there's a proven link between decreasing wetlands and increasing nutrient pollution," she said.


Gaesser said farmers across the country continue to make improvements to the land to prevent runoff and improve water quality.

In Iowa, for example, he said, farmers continue to do that without being forced to do it.

"We manage our time down to the square foot," Gaesser said. "How can somebody in Washington, D.C., tell us the best way to improve water quality without giving some deference to me and the 2 million other farmers who know their own land better than anyone else? Despite what you've heard, I would argue that what we're doing in Iowa farms is working to improve water quality."

Ten years ago, there were just 10,000 acres of cover crops in Iowa, he said. Today, there are more than 1.7 million acres of cover crops and counting.

"Conservation tillage is taking place on three-quarters of Iowa's acreage," Gaesser said. "Farmers are using precision-agriculture technology that helps us to acquire fertilizer and our chemicals within 1 inch of whether needed at the right way, the right time to minimize runoff at their own expense."

Gaesser said sediment loss dropped by about 50% since 1987, and Iowa has reduced phosphorus losses by 27% from the baseline assigned to it in the state's voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy.

"There's still progress to be made," he said, "but we're getting there. And what we need is help to solve the nutrient-loss problem from farm fields."

Gaesser said about two-thirds of the land he farms has cover crops, which is a process that has taken many decades.

"We'd like to get to 100%," he said. "It's hard to get there because of the labor because of time constraints and those things."

Gaesser said the Natural Resources Conservation Service's regional conservation partnership program has been "an important funding partner" in farms' efforts.

Dwyer said it's also important to support and fund programs that tackle nonpoint-source pollution.

"We encourage the EPA and Corps to embrace the opportunity to work with and collaboratively to address actual, real on-the-ground solutions and realistic alternatives" to just federal regulation of waters, she said.

"I think we need to recognize that implementation and the resulting effects takes time. We may not see the results immediately, but we're making efforts on the ground."

Read more on DTN:

"WOTUS Roundtable Panelists: Regulate Ag,"…

"WOTUS Rule Proposal Still in Works,"…

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Todd Neeley

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