When EPA administrator Michael S. Regan on June 9 announced his agency’s intention to change how it defines “waters of the United States,” my first thought was: “Here we go again!”
He was short on specifics, but farmers and others should keep close watch on where this may be headed. The Obama administration tried the same thing six years ago, when it expanded the definition with language vague enough arguably to include the grass waterways and temporary ponds on my farm.
When it rains so hard on my farm that the ground can’t absorb the downpour, water flows away through a network of channels that we’ve built to protect our soil from erosion. They look like strips of grass, and most of the time they’re dry as a bone, but we call them “waterways.” In a few low-lying areas, the rainwater can collect and stand there for a day or two.
Does this give us a “significant nexus” to “navigable water”? The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers seem to think so, and it appears they want to regulate my fields under the authority of the Clean Water Act.
What they may propose could become one of the federal government’s most audacious land grabs.
Six years ago, farmers and other landowners protested, but we couldn’t stop the administrative state from imposing its will. With the election of Donald Trump, the EPA replaced the Obama regulation with more sensible rules. Now the Biden administration intends to replace the replacement, possibly going back to the way things were after the Obama team changed them.
The problem with the Obama-Biden approach is that it treats farmers as wards of the state rather than as stewards of the land. It assumes that we don’t care about water quality, especially from fertilizer runoff, which can cause pollution downstream.
I’m the last person who wants fertilizer to wash from my fields. I have a strong economic incentive to keep it here, as I pay for these products to deliver the nitrogen and phosphorus that help my crops grow. If rain carries any of it away, I might as well be pouring money down the drain.
One of the best ways to prevent runoff is to have healthy soil that absorbs rainwater. This is the main purpose of the waterways we’ve built on our farms—not to force fertilizer downstream, and certainly not to draw attention from EPA regulators, but to prevent our most valuable soil from eroding away.
The going rate for an acre of land in my area is about $14,000, with most of its value held in its top two inches. We need this rich, black dirt. We can’t afford to lose it. The bulk of my net worth is tied to the land and its productivity.
To protect the soil, we’ve adopted a series of sustainable practices. Instead of plowing the soil to kill weeds, we’ve switched to no-till methods that keep our soil in place and apply crop-protection products responsibly. We also plant cover crops, which enhance soil quality, guard against runoff, and improve biodiversity. Many farmers use buffer strips, which is permanent vegetation along rivers and streams to preserve sediment and prevent runoff. Finally, we use nitrogen stabilizers that help keep our fertilizer in our fields.
Regulations have nothing to do with it.
Farmers today are growing more food on less land than ever before, thanks to modern crop genetics and advanced technologies such as GPS mapping. When we’re productive, our farm benefits—and so does everyone else. We keep food supplies abundant and consumer prices in check. We also make it easier to conserve land rather than use it for agriculture.
The EPA’s approach seems to disregard all of this, threatening to set up a system that could require me to seek the approval of a bureaucrat as I make basic farming decisions. Rather than buying a new tractor or combine, I’ll have to employ a team of lawyers. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, asks a good question: “If you are simply moving dirt to level off a low point in a field, should that need a federal permit?”
Citizens need to take action by emailing EPA at OW-Docket@EPA.gov , including Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2021_0302 by August 2, 2021.
The sensible people within the Biden administration—starting with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack—should speak up with us and oppose this potential nightmare of red tape.
Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL. He volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.
For more opinions and ag news, go to: www.agri-pulse.com.