Proposed revisions to Clean Water Act alarm farmers
CHAMPAIGN — Some area farmers are alarmed that proposed revisions of the Clean Water Act could impinge on their operations.
About 50 people turned out Tuesday at the Champaign County Farm Bureau auditorium to hear what the revisions, if adopted, could mean for them.
The Illinois Farm Bureau, which opposes the revisions, says that if the changes are adopted, ditches and other channels that fill up with water only occasionally could be deemed waters subject to federal regulation — and farmers who own that ground could be fined for any discharges into them.
Currently, the act applies only to navigable waters, but the Illinois Farm Bureau contends the revisions would extend that to include puddles, ponds, ditches and dry channels that turn into streams during heavy rains.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which came up with the revisions, maintain the changes would affect only about an additional 1,300 acres nationwide.
But the Farm Bureau is among several advocacy groups that don't want to see the definition expanded, for fear that regulators will use that leeway down the road to extend their jurisdiction.
In a handout to farmers, the Illinois Farm Bureau warned: "Clean Water Act jurisdiction could result in severe restrictions on your farming — or even prohibit farming activities in or near ditches, washes or isolated 'wetlands.' ... As a result of the proposed rule, farmers will face roadblocks to ordinary land-use activities, like fencing, spraying for weeds or insects, discing or even pulling weeds."
Lauren Lurkins, the state Farm Burea's director of natural and environmental resources, said that if the revisions are adopted, farmers might have to wait for permits to build fences and use pesticides — and could be subject to citizen lawsuits and penalties of $37,500 per discharge per day if they act without a permit.
For its part, the EPA said in a release that:
— It is not going to have greater power over water on farms and ranches.
— It is not taking control of ponds in the middle of farms.
— The rule will not bring all ditches on farms under federal jurisdiction.
— The rule will not apply to wet areas on fields.
— Federal permits won't be required for applications of fertilizer or pesticides on farm fields.
The EPA is taking public comments on the proposed rules through Oct. 19, and the Farm Bureau is urging farmers to write letters, send emails and comment at the regulations.gov website to make their views known to the agency.
Lurkins said the fight could be "an uphill battle," given that most comments in the Federal Register about the new rule favor it.
"We definitely have a challenge," she said.
A recent campaign by the Illinois Farm Bureau to kill the revisions prompted 968 phone calls to the White House over three days, said Adam Nielsen, the Farm Bureau's director of national legislation and policy development. The group later received word that the EPA regional administrator in Chicago wanted to speak with farmers about the issue.
Nielsen said the Farm Bureau is planning to invite U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk to visit farms and see the potential impact of the proposed rules.
He said there were moves in Congress about 20 years ago to enact something similar, but those failed.
"They couldn't get what they wanted legislatively, so they're trying to accomplish it through rule-making," he said.
Lurkins showed a map of intermittent and occasional streams in Illinois, which appeared to be rife in southern Ford County and northwest Vermilion County but relatively infrequent in central and southern Champaign County.
Among those attending the meeting was Macon County Farm Bureau President Ed Leonard, who said farmers don't want the expensive nitrogen fertilizer they apply to fields going into waterways.
"We want to keep it there on our crops," he said.
Leonard added that regulators are sometimes too eager to impose rules.
"We feel it's easy to legislate when you're 500 miles from farms and your plow is a pencil," Leonard said.