The Greene County Legislature is fighting a proposed modification to the Clean Water Act that lawmakers say will burden farmers with “costly and time-consuming permitting and regulatory protocols,” according to a resolution passed last week.
The change was proposed in April by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the stated intention of clarifying protections for streams and wetlands, which became confusing and complicated after Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006.
According to an EPA press release, the proposed rule clarifies that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are protected, as are wetlands near rivers and streams. Other waters with more uncertain connections to downstream waters will be evaluated on a case-by-base basis.
“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities,” stated EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in the release. “Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”
The EPA claims the rule “does 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 more narrow reading of Clean Water Act jurisdiction.”
But opponents, like the Greene County legislature, read it differently.
“Both the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers essentially want to broaden the definition of the existing Clean Water Act,” said Greene County Legislator James Hitchcock, R-Maplecrest. “And under their proposal, a large puddle in a field, a typical farm field, could be considered navigable waters. And I feel that it is EPA overreach at its worst.”
The resolution passed unanimously last week states that “the CWA was not intended to protect ditches and other channels through which water flows intermittently, nor was it intended to capture seeps, wet areas, isolated man-made ponds and other structures not currently subject to CWA.”
Legislators and agricultural groups fear the changes will require many public works projects and farm activities to go through the “costly and time-consuming permitting” process necessary under the CWA, not only increasing costs to farmers, but to the taxpayers, as well.
Mick Bessire, agricultural educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia & Greene Counties, said farmers are particularly upset and concerned that they’ll be responsible for ensuring that runoff during rainstorms is in compliance with the Clean Water Act.
“Any pollution or any degradation to the water by farm activities is not acceptable, and everybody knows that,” he said. “But the idea here is that every time it rains, you’re going to have to deal with EPA regulations. That’s why its not very popular with the farm community. They haven’t got the time or the money to do all the things that may be required under this new law.”
Bessire said it’s about “being responsible versus being mandated or being regulated into doing things.”
Both Bessire and Elizabeth LoGuidice, natural resources educator at CCE, said this kind of decision is not easy and not black-and-white — nobody wants more burdens on farmers, but nobody wants a polluted water supply, either.
“The water quality in our streams, of course, is of paramount importance to our groundwater supplies and our economic well-being as well as our ecological well-being,” said LoGuidice. “The bottom line is that reducing our impacts on streams is really necessary because we have impacted them negatively in the past and we need to minimize that in the future.”
The public comment period for the proposed rule is open until Oct. 20. Read the law and learn how to comment at http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/CWAwaters.cfm.