Farmers fume over proposed EPA wetlands rule change

Irrigating farmland
A field of corn is irrigated near Clear Lake, Minn. in this 2013 file photo.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News 2013

Farmers are fuming over a proposed federal rule change in how wetlands and other waters are protected.

Under current Clean Water Act rules, if farmers follow proper farming practices, they don't need permits for projects like cleaning a drainage ditch.

After two Supreme Court rulings muddied the regulatory waters, the EPA decided to change the rule that defines what land use practices are regulated under the act.

For example, the EPA would redefine which waters fall under federal jurisdiction. That means some wetlands would be covered and others would not, said John Jaschke, director of the state Board of Water and Soil Resources.

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But under Minnesota law, he said, all wetlands are protected.

Environmental Protection Agency officials insist new exemptions will ease and clarify regulation on agricultural land. But some farmers are concerned that the new rules will give federal regulators an expanded role on farmer's fields.

"We really believe this is going to create new regulatory burdens," Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said. "We're willing to sit down and have a constructive conversation about what is exempt, what is not exempt. More clarity on what the intent of this rule means to those on the land."

Paap said he's not opposed to regulation, but he wants the rules to be clear. He also prefers rules from the state, not the federal government.

The way the agency has spread the news has been a colossal communication failure, Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said.

"It seems like the bureaucrats have their own speak. It's almost like bureaucrats gone wild," Peterson said. "The bottom line is there is so much confusion on this in the countryside, it's going to be a long time before it's implemented."

Environmental Protection Agency officials were surprised by the negative response to a rule the agency sees as pro-agriculture, a senior EPA official said this week. The official also conceded that the agency has "not done a perfect job of conveying that message."

In Minnesota, the effect of any new rule likely will be muted because the state has its own laws to protect water, said Jaschke, director of the water and soil resources board.

"For Minnesota, the part of this rule change that's being proposed, I don't think will make a great deal of difference, because state law already has an equivalent or greater level of protection in most cases," he said.

Jaschke said he hopes the EPA can respond to farmers concerns. He calls the current rule cumbersome, complicated and uncertain.

In response to farmers' concerns, the EPA extended the comment period from July to October. And this week EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy held a conference call with state and national leaders of the Farmers Union.

Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said McCarthy promised the rule would not be implemented until farmers concerns are addressed.

Peterson thinks that will be difficult as the fight is partly about government regulation and partly about politics. He said groups on both sides of the issue are stoking the rumor mill.

"Rumor rules the day. You're going to have frustration and you're going to have people incensed," Peterson said. "And if you salt that with a political year where you turn up the rhetoric, you're going to have some pretty interesting fall elections."

EPA officials say the agency will continue a dialogue with farmers and states before deciding the next steps in the rulemaking process.