HARRISONBURG — State agriculture leaders are heralding the Trump administration’s rollback of the controversial Waters of the United States rule, a regulation forged under President Barack Obama that gave the Environmental Protection Agency broad powers over the nation’s small bodies of water.
“The agriculture industry continues to partner with public and private groups to maintain water quality through various programs,” Jason Carter, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association and Virginia Beef Industry Council, said Wednesday.
“It’s never been our contention that it wasn’t a priority. Our issue with WOTUS has always been that it was an overreach of powers of the Clean Water Act.”
The rule sought to redefine navigable waterways over which the EPA had jurisdiction. Critics, however, said it gave the federal agency authority over areas that only fill with water when it rains, such as where water puddles.
The rule was established in 2015 but did not take effect due to legal challenges. President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to review the rule, and the agency announced Tuesday that it would be revoked.
The decision represented “a stand for common sense, personal liberty, and upholding constitutional governance,” according to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke.
“At its core,” he said in a news release, “WOTUS was an example of unworkable federal government overreach that dramatically expands the EPA’s authority over regulating waterways, including those on private property, and would place even more small streams and creeks under the agency’s control.
“Protecting America’s waterways is critical, but we need common sense policies that will protect water quality without limiting economic growth and unfairly over-regulating local agricultural producers and economies.”
Some observers, though, see the decision as a blow to environmental improvement efforts.
“Clean water is a right, not a luxury,” Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement. “The proposal to rescind the federal clean water rule would allow more pollution in headwater streams and wetlands.
“Fortunately, most of the Bay states have regulations to protect these waters. But that could change. It is far cheaper to prevent pollution in the first place, than clean it up downstream.”
Coble noted that efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay “are seeing real progress,” but added that it’s the wrong time “to weaken efforts to reduce pollution.”
But Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, said the rule went too far, calling it “an unreasonable stretch of the scope of the Clean Water Act.”
“It injected uncertainty into the lives of farmers,” he continued. “It created the prospect of draconian enforcement against farmers for using normal farming practices to work fields that might have certain physical features that are far removed from waters of the United States.”
The rollback, Bauhan said, “allows farmers to farm in an environmentally sustainable manner.”
Eric Paulson, executive secretary of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, said the rule wasn’t just a problem for farmers — it would have affected many industries.
“They were trying to shoehorn something they wanted into an existing piece of the Clean Water Act,” he said, “and I don’t think it fit. They were calling areas in the middle of fields waterways, and they were dry as a bone.
“That raised some questions about what are navigable waterways when we’re talking about land that’s dry.”
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and American Farm Bureau partnered in a lawsuit to stop the rule from taking effect, Carter said. Thirty-two states and 53 commodity or industry organizations sued over the rule.
A clearer definition of which waters the EPA has jurisdiction over is “long overdue,” Carter said. But the Waters of the U.S. rule wasn’t the answer.
“We always viewed WOTUS as an overreach of the authority granted the EPA,” he said, “and the consequences of that were uncertainty and overregulation for land adjacent to water.”