WASHINGTON, July 8, 2014 — The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has joined several agricultural groups in asking EPA to withdraw its “interpretive rule” concerning Clean Water Act (CWA) permit exemptions for certain farming activities near wetlands.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released the rule earlier this year at the same time as their proposal to define “Waters of the U.S.” The agency closed a public comment period for the interpretive rule on Monday, but comments on the Waters of the U.S. definition can be submitted until Oct. 20.

Several agricultural organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) have also asked EPA to withdraw the interpretive rule, as well as the Waters of the U.S. proposal.

In comments filed Monday, NMPF said the interpretive rule could actually discourage water conservation. The organization, which represents more than 32,000 dairy farmers, said the guidance changes NRCS’s role from that of a conservation partner to an enforcer of the Clean Water Act on EPA’s behalf.  NCBA and the Public Lands Council also filed comments making much the same argument.

The listed farming practices are considered exempt from needing CWA permits only if they comply with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service technical standards, NMPF noted.

“Until now, NRCS has been the place producers could go for conservation advice, while EPA was charged with ensuring compliance with the Clean Water Act,” said Jamie Jonker, NMPF’s vice president for sustainability and scientific affairs. “The cooperative relationship with NRCS made it more likely farmers would adopt water conservation practices.”

“Unfortunately,” Jonker said, “the interpretive rule moves NRCS into an enforcement role and, in the process, could set back conservation efforts.”

NMPF used harvesting hay as an example. Under the interpretive rule, farmers harvesting hay may be exempt from needing a CWA permit only if they follow four pages of NRCS criteria covering timing of the harvest, moisture content of the hay, length of the cut hay, stubble height and more.

“Many dairy farmers harvest hay without any reference to NRCS standards,” said Jonker.  “Will these farmers now be forced to comply with Standard No. 511? If so, many will simply choose not to work with the NRCS. As a result, there will be less water conservation on farms, not more.”

The NCBA also criticized the interpretive rule.

“The chilling effect on participation in conservation activities will be compounded when NRCS is seen as wielding the final say on whether a producer is in violation of the Clean Water Act or not,” said NCBA President, Bob McCan. “Historically, NRCS and its field personnel have been seen as a friend to agriculture; helping producers achieve goals in production and conservation through technical and financial assistance. Now, they will simply be an extended arm of the EPA, spending their time checking compliance of voluntary conservation activities.”


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