As farmers await, an update to the federal Clean Water Act is expected to be issued by the Biden administration soon.
Updates that provide greater protections under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) are expected in the coming months, and many farmers and their associations are wary of potentially tighter new rules to follow. In the course of the CWA rule-making process, the agencies tasked with this effort — the US EPA and Army Corps of Engineers — are holding listening sessions in which farm interests are voicing concerns about what regulation could mean for their land and operations.
Such rules depend on how Waters of the United States (WOTUS) are defined, and thus the waters automatically covered by CWA protections. From the start, the WOTUS definition has been an ongoing controversy that pinballs between presidential administrations that interpret it more narrowly or broadly. At the heart of the issue for farmers and other industries is how the government handles water bodies on lands they own or manage, like isolated wetlands and ephemeral streams (i.e., streams that are wet only at certain times of the year), farmers fear greater regulation of their fields and operations as pollution washes from them into smaller waterways and eventually into major water bodies. Water polluted by fertilizers, pesticides, bacteria, sediment and other contaminants severely damage downstream quality of drinking water supplies and ecosystem health.
But agriculture has largely avoided water quality regulation over the decades. As Mila Marshall of Illinois Sierra Club observes about farm pollution impacts,
Our wastewater treatment facilities are not able to manage and process waste and materials that they weren’t designed to do 100 years ago. Industry [needs to be] held accountable for releasing toxins and pollutants into drinking water systems.
The Biden administration seeks to write a more expansive definition of WOTUS to cover more waters such as smaller streams and wetlands that do connect with “navigable waters,” so that farmers must take action to limit water contamination by not altering certain waters on their land or by reducing fertilizer use, etc. For farmers, this could possibly mean more investments in time and money, or decreased profitability. At the same time, the fundamental question must be asked: Who is responsible for pollution if not the polluters themselves?