Clean water is fundamental to growing the healthy, sustainable food Americans enjoy year-round, and state departments of agriculture are leading partners in helping farmers protect clean water across the nation.

States currently are responsible for enforcing more than 96 percent of federal water laws as designed by the Clean Water Act of 1972. The historic legislation served as a catalyst for the layers of stringent local, state and federal water regulations in place today and has led to dramatic improvements in water quality over the past 50 years.

Congress knew that water would be best protected when states are well supported to carry out the goals of the Clean Water Act. Thus, it created a partnership requiring the federal government to work with state agencies – including agriculture departments – to implement water quality improvement programs. Local officials best understand their state’s water resources and make tailored decisions unique to their water use needs, leading to regulations in many states that make a meaningful difference for our environment while enabling the affordable production of food.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently sent a resounding message reaffirming this model partnership in its unanimous Sackett v. EPA ruling. After more than a decade of the federal government issuing new Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules that expand its jurisdiction, the court demanded that federal agencies respect states’ Clean Water Act-mandated role in protecting U.S. waterways. In his opinion, Justice Alito references the states and writes, “regulation of land and water use lies at the core of traditional state authority.” 

State agriculture departments have been working in tandem with farmers, other local regulators, and indeed, federal regulators as well for decades to achieve better water quality and preserve natural resources through voluntary and incentive-based practices, and there are numerous examples of programs that have done this well.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has managed an agricultural stewardship program for nearly three decades that helps farmers and ranchers protect and improve water quality. The program works with Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts to investigate reports of water quality problems from agricultural activities and offers farmers educational opportunities and a chance to voluntarily correct the issue. For example, the program has helped farmers install livestock exclusion fencing and buffer zones to limit runoff and protect the erosion of riverbanks from livestock. Since its inception, the program has implemented 51 projects within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed resulting in the adoption of numerous best practices like these and vastly improved water quality by helping remove pollutants from waterways across Virginia.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry utilizes a direct link loan program designed to proactively reduce nonpoint source pollution on working lands. The program offers loggers financial incentives for purchasing equipment that minimizes soil disturbances on streams hydrologically connected to larger bodies of water vital to the health and well-being of Maine’s water resources. Since 2008, more than $45 million in loans have been administered to support loggers in adopting practices to reduce pollution and protect water resources.

The Delaware Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Commission offers programs on manure relocation and using cover crops to accelerate progress toward water quality goals in the state and region. Through the initative, over one million tons of manure have been diverted to alternative uses and a million more have been used to restore nutrient-deficient soils on farms. Working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, this program is one of many examples proving that states can successfully work with the federal government to balance protecting water and farm productivity.

State agriculture departments are distinctly situated to implement efforts to protect clean water. They are the trusted, on-the-ground experts well-versed in the state’s agriculture industry. They not only implement federal regulations on environmental conservation, but also create programs that help farmers and ranchers steward their water, air and land.

With its most recent WOTUS rule, the federal government ignored its duty to partner with states and gave itself sweeping authority to regulate nearly every body of water in the country – including, in some cases, dry land that rarely holds water. Rather than working with existing state efforts to protect and improve water quality, the agencies created a cumbersome federal regulatory landscape.

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In Sackett v. EPA, the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that WOTUS rule went far beyond Congress’ original intent in the Clean Water Act. In the decision, SCOTUS mandated that the agencies correct the rule and issue a revised version. This call for reversal is exactly why state departments of agriculture had previously urged EPA to wait on any WOTUS rulemaking until the Supreme Court released a decision in Sackett.

While the court’s decision is a tip of the hat to states’ authority, the ability for states and local governing bodies to implement successful water quality programs and build on years of progress isn’t quite in-hand. EPA seeks to bypass any final public input in revising WOTUS and retain as much federal control over water regulation as possible, despite the outcome in the Sackett case.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have indicated that this revised WOTUS rulemaking process will be released by Sept. 1 without a public comment period, a choice surreptitiously made to block the public and local regulators’ input.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture will continue to implore EPA and the Corps to accept public comments on the rule before it is permanent, as local regulators depend on a clear-cut rule to achieve better water quality outcomes for our communities, protect natural resources and preserve national food security. It’s time the federal government recognizes the role of states in water protections as determined by the Supreme Court’s Sackett decision. To EPA, as your partner, we stand ready – again - to review and input on what may now be final regulations.

Ted McKinney is the CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

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