Letter to the Editor

EPA waters rule bad for farmers, ranchers

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Remember the movie 'Groundhog Day'; the one where Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? The twist being Murray's character becomes trapped in a time loop, re-living the same day over and over and over again.

In a world where art often imitates real life, the 'Groundhog Day' effect is alive and well with farm and ranch families having a front row seat for the Obama Administration's repeated and expansive attempts to regulate farms and ranches.

The Administration's latest version of "Coming Soon" highlights EPA's proposed "Waters of the U.S. Rule"; a proposal to grant the agency unprecedented authority and control over farmland. That's right...a water rule giving the agency control over land use.

Like Murray's 'Groundhog Day' character, agriculture is becoming way too accustomed to a repeating cycle of less than farm-friendly proposals. The Administration's body of work includes some real rotten tomatoes. Few in farm country will forget their plans to prevent children from working on farms, or their initiative to require farmers to get a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) to drive tractors. Nebraskans have also been touched by their efforts to subject grain storage bins to OSHA standards, complying with overzealous fuel storage standards, and the now infamous airplane fly-overs of farms and ranches.

While there are some doozies in their list of credits, the latest is the most heinous. Under the proposal, any land where water flows, pools, collects, or stands during or after a rainfall event would be considered to be "Waters of the U.S." While that sounds harmless, there's a catch. Waters of the U.S. are subject to a multitude of federal Clean Water Act (CWA) regulations, including both EPA's pollutant discharge permit requirements and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's dredge and fill permits.

Farmers and ranchers with land that contains any of these water features (and most will) will find out quickly that farming practices like applying fertilizer, cutting hay and even building fences would require CWA permits. The real kicker is that EPA has no legal obligation to issue permits to individuals. In simplest terms, EPA would have clear control of what happens on an individual's farm or ranch.

Agriculture needs to take notice. While 'Groundhog Day' was a comedy, the Administration's land grab is anything but. The agency is investing heavily in trying to create a positive buzz around their blockbuster, touting the rule as good for farmers and pointing to a series of USDA approved "agriculture exemptions" to the rule. The move has swooned environmental groups and fooled some in farm country. Those who've studied the proposal, however, understand farmers shouldn't need exemptions from normal farm practices that aren't subject to regulation in the first place, something EPA seems to ignore.

Slowing EPA's zest for greater land control won't be easy. At the conclusion of 'Groundhog Day' Murray's character successfully breaks the cycle of re-living the same day over and over by making personal improvements and becoming a better person. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court has already turned EPA away twice before when questions were raised about how far the agency could reach in controlling land use in the name of protecting water quality. EPA's new straight-forward approach of attempting to regulate everything certainly leaves few hairs to split, but still heads in the wrong direction for agriculture and the environment.

While farmland is squarely in the cross-hairs, the reach of the proposal goes well-beyond agriculture boundaries. Anyone who puts a spade in the ground to turn the soil should take notice. This rule, like so many of its predecessors, needs turned back before the final credits roll.

-- Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, farms with his son near Axtell, Nebraska.

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