GOP senators on ag panel ask for withdrawal of WOTUS interpretive rule

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 24, 2014 - Senate Agriculture Committee Republicans are asking EPA to withdraw the so-called interpretive rule released with its “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) proposal, saying it could “fundamentally alter interaction between farmers and the federal government."

In a letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the senators said the WOTUS regulations would bring more waters -- including streams, creeks, wetlands, ponds and ditches -- under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, making them subject to EPA permitting requirements.  The agriculture Interpretive Rule outlines just 56 activities out of more than 160 conservation practices that previously qualified for the normal farming and ranching exemption, they said.

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“We have heard from farmers, ranchers, and other rural constituents about the Interpretive Rule and are deeply concerned it has created great confusion about what agriculture activities are exempt from regulation under the Clean Water Act,” the senators said in their letter.

The lawmakers, led by Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the Agriculture Committee's ranking member asks, that the interpretive rule be withdrawn, asserting that farming, ranching and rural constituencies had little opportunity to provide input on the new rule. The letter was also signed by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John Boozman of Arkansas, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Thune of South Dakota.

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“Beyond adding confusion and uncertainty, the Interpretive Rule would fundamentally change the relationship between the Department of Agriculture and farm families.  Over decades of farm policy, USDA has established an unprecedented relationship of trust with farmers, ranchers, and rural stakeholders.  This unique relationship is built on voluntary conservation programs and a mutual commitment to protecting natural resources and keeping land in agriculture.  Bringing USDA into the Clean Water Act permitting process would profoundly shift the nature of this successful approach by dismantling a longstanding partnership between the Federal government and agriculture community,” the Senators wrote.

In a news release, the senators note that the letter is the latest step taken by Republicans on the agriculture panel to raise concerns with the Obama administration about the WOTUS initiative. And they point out that the regulatory proposal was the main topic when McCarthy met with the senators in July to discuss the effect of what they see as “aggressive EPA regulatory expansion on agriculture and rural states.”

Now, they say they are calling for more transparency and stakeholder involvement.

“As the administration continues to extend the timeframe for finalization of the flawed WOTUS proposal, any further discussion of how agricultural activities may fit into this framework must allow for a transparent and public process in which the voice of American agriculture can be heard,” the senators' letter concluded.

The letter was also addressed to Army Secretary John McHugh, who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, which jointly issued the WOTUS proposal with EPA.

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