The leaders of several Iowa farm groups say they’re worried the EPA’s final draft of rules to curb pollution in small waterways and wetlands will subject farm ditches and farm ponds to federal oversight. Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Hill says this final rule failed to address many of the concerns farmers raised after the EPA released a first draft of new Clean Water Act regulations last spring.
“The penalties are so severe if you are found to be in breach of the Clean Water Act,” Hill says. “Those penalties can range up to $37,500 per instance. Jail is one of the penalty provisions.”
Hill says it appears farmers will have to get federal permits for “normal farming practices.”
“The permitting process is very cumbersome, awkward and expensive,” Hill says. “And, according to what we read in this new rule, farmers will be required to get permits for things they’ve never been required to get permits for before.”
EPA officials say the new rule covers about three percent more waterways in the United States that have a “direct and significant” connection to lakes and rivers that are already covered by the Clean Water Act. Hill says farmers still aren’t sure whether they’ll have to get permits for the ponds on their property.
“Every pond has an overflow. Well, the overflow is not exempt,” Hill says. “So when they say ponds are exempt it has no meaning because the water that comes out of a pond is, by definition, a water of the U.S.”
The new rule failed to answer key questions farmers raised last spring, according to Hill, like what is a lawful grass waterway.
“We know what a grass waterway is in Iowa and farmers are installing those on their own accord. Every spring and fall we’re reshaping and trying to perform conservation, but we turn to NRCS — the Natural Resources Conservation Service — for an outline of what is proper and best management practice and so on,” Hill says. “Well, according to EPA, they will only consider a waterway lawful by their definition.”
The president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association says the EPA seems to be “restricting” farmers efforts to “voluntarily improve our environment,” rather than partnering with farmers to advance conservation measures.
The chairman of the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter praised the EPA’s rule, arguing it is “a critical step toward protecting streams and wetlands that feed our drinking water supplies.”
Experts offer conflicting opinions about the rule’s potential impact on the lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works has filed against three northwest Iowa counties.