The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) on Tuesday jointly released a 371-page proposed rule  to clarify waterways protection under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The proposed rule would give the federal government regulatory authority over millions of acres of wetlands and about 2 million miles of streams.

The issue of what streams and wetlands quality for protection under the CWA has been in dispute for a number of years.  The Supreme Court previously issued two decisions and the George W. Bush administration issued guidance in 2003 and 2008 limiting the scope of the CWA. According to EPA, 20 million wetland acres and two million miles of streams are at increased risk of pollution and degradation under the current complex and confusing rules. Farmers are concerned that the process of obtaining a federal permit to conduct their farming activities creates an unnecessary burden, while environmentalists say these waters are critical and must be protected.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement that “the proposed rule preserves the CWA exemptions and exclusions for agriculture.  Additionally, EPA and the Army Corps have coordinated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop an interpretive rule to ensure that 53 specific conservation practices that protect or improve water quality will not be subject to Section 404 dredged or fill permitting requirements.  The agencies will work together to implement these new agricultural exemptions and periodically review, and update USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation practice standards and activities that would qualify under the exemption. Any agriculture activity that does not result in the discharge of a pollutant to waters of the U.S. still does not require a permit.  Read an agriculture fact sheet.

“We will be looking it over, sad Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation.  “I know they are indicating to people that they have worked out certain exemptions for agriculture.  We are going to pay very close attention to what they have done,” he said.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days from publication in the Federal Register.