Lawmakers put off Clean Water Act fight

The Clean Water Act provisions in the massive fiscal 2015 spending agreement are likely to do little to slow an effort by farm groups to kill a proposed rule defining the law’s jurisdiction.

The bill, which is headed to floor votes in the House and Senate in coming days, is silent on the proposed rule. The bill does include a provision ordering the administration to adhere to the existing farming exemptions from the law’s Section 404 permitting requirements.

But that language appears “intended to reinforce existing exemptions for discharges subject” to the permit requirements,” said Jon Devine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Since we of course believe that the agencies should follow the law, underlining it is unobjectionable.”

Don Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation said the bill doesn’t “address any of our concerns” with the proposed rule, which the group argues will significantly expand the law’s jurisdiction. The rule defines what areas are regulated as waters of the United States, or WOTUS.

A second provision in the bill would kill a separate interpretive rule that details the standards farmers would have to meet to qualify for the Section 404 exemption, but withdrawing that measure won’t be particularly controversial.

Environmentalists said the interpretive rule went too far in defining exempt agricultural practices, but farm groups didn’t like the measure either. They argued that it would make the Department of Agriculture’s voluntary standards for a range of farming practices, including forage management and fencing, effectively mandatory. Producers likely wouldn’t qualify for the Clean Water Act exemptions if they didn’t adhere to the USDA standards, farm groups say.

Devine said, “Overall, we are very grateful to congressional leaders and the White House who fought to keep the bill free of a frontal assault on the clean water rule that the agencies have proposed, so that critical effort can continue to move forward.” <more>

Dec. 10, 2014 Agri-Pulse