Pressure from farm groups and rural property owners has influenced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plans to cut off public comment on its proposed definition for waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act.
EPA officials announced Tuesday, June 10, that farmers, ranchers, rural property owners and other interested stakeholders will be allowed additional time to comment on its proposed water rules. The date for comment, that was set to expire July 21, has been extended until Oct. 20, 2014, an additional 91 days.
In addition, comment on the interpretive rule governing agricultural exemptions that was part of the Waters of the U.S. rule has been extended from June 5 until July 7.
On March 25, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a joint statement that would "clarify the definition of waters of the United States" under rules of the Clean Water Act. The announced drew fire from individual farmers, ranchers and farm and livestock support groups who contend such a change in the rules would expand EPA's authority to regulate water run-off ditches on private property, infringing on individual property rights.
EPA argued the proposed rule would not protect any new types of waters that have not historically been covered under the Clean Water Act and is consistent with the Supreme Court's definition of power granted EPA by the Clean Water Act.
But farm and livestock stakeholders claimed federal officials failed to address agricultural property owner's concerns when they issued a statement that claimed "the proposed rule clarifies the Clean Water Act, most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are protected; Wetlands near rivers and streams are protected; and other types of waters may have more uncertain connections with downstream water and protection will be evaluated through a case specific analysis."
Agriculture groups said they feared that the statement was too vague and could mean the federal agency could determine at will what represented protected waters.
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EPA's new rules came about after years of discussion between property owners, public officials and federal authorities regarding the Clean Water Act and its protection rules for streams and wetlands. Eventually the issue was elevated to the U.S Supreme Court.
After lengthy research and discussion, the High Court finally ruled "that water must have a significant nexus to navigable waters to be jurisdictional," but farm groups claim EPA contends that all water and waterways, permanent or temporary, has a nexus to navigable waters, an indication the agency has no limits to its jurisdiction over all water in the United States.
EPA responded to claims of the agriculture groups by saying there are provisions for exemptions, including Clean Water Act permitting exemptions for ag stormwater discharges, maintenance of drainage and irrigation ditches, and normal farming and ranching activities.
Extensions to the comment period for the new water rules is being heralded as a temporary victory for the industry and property owners nationwide. The American Farm Bureau Federation released a statement Wednesday in support of the comment extension.
“The American Farm Bureau Federation is pleased the EPA has extended the time available to comment on new and highly burdensome clean water rules. This is a victory for farming families and a clear signal that America’s farmers know how to stand up and be counted." AFBF President Bob Stallman, a farmer from Texas, said in the statement.
“This latest rule broadly expands federal jurisdiction and threatens local land-use and zoning authority. Simply put, it is an end-run around Congress and the Supreme Court. I look forward to expanding on our position in testimony tomorrow before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment. The new schedule gives us until October 20 to comment on the Waters of the United States rule, and until July 7 to comment on the accompanying interpretive rule. Rest assured we will use that time to its best advantage.”