Farmers relax after Trump administration proposes major rollback of rules governing waterways

Farmers relax after Trump administration proposes major rollback of rules governing waterways
A stream of water flows through culverts in 2013 on a hog operation near Columbus. Many farmers in Nebraska and Iowa breathed easier this week after the Trump administration moved to officially roll back protections for waterways and wetlands across the country. DAVID HENDEE/THE WORLD-HERALD

WASHINGTON — Osceola farmer Kevin Peterson knows something about the cost of complying with water regulations.

Peterson grows corn and soybeans in addition to running a hog operation. He said he spent tens of thousands of dollars on engineering fees to ensure that his hog operation meets all state and federal requirements.

“If I were to have to stretch those across everything we do, the row crop acres and things like that, that would be a very, very costly and time-consuming ordeal,” Peterson said.

That’s why he and many other farmers breathed easier this week after the Trump administration moved to officially roll back protections for waterways and wetlands across the country. It’s a push that makes good on President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to weaken landmark Obama-era water rules long opposed by some developers, farmers and oil, gas and mining executives.

The scaling back of federal oversight is “recognizing and respecting the primary authority of states and tribes” over the waterways, R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said during a ceremony at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters.

Environmental groups said the Trump administration proposal would have a sweeping effect on how the country safeguards the nation’s waterways, scaling back not just a 2015 Obama administration interpretation of federal jurisdiction, but also how federal agencies enforce the 1972 Clean Water Act.

“The Trump administration has just given a big Christmas gift to polluters,” said Bob Irvin, president of the American Rivers environmental nonprofit. “Americans all over the country are concerned about the safety of their drinking water — this is not the time to be rolling back protections.”

The changes would affect what waterways and wetlands fall under jurisdiction of the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Trump administration would remove federal protections for wetlands nationally unless they are connected to another federally protected waterway, and for streams, creeks, washes and ditches that run only during rains or snow melt.

Under President Barack Obama, EPA officials said the 2015 rules would be easier and clearer than what came before. And they rejected suggestions that they were going to regulate every muddy hoofprint out there.

Still, for farmers such as Peterson, that approach opened up way too much land to the regulation under the Clean Water Act.

Farmers worried they would suddenly be under federal scrutiny for ditches near their fields that had running water only during the heaviest of downpours.

“They of course would tell us that ‘Oh, of course we sure wouldn’t want to regulate every little puddle in the ground,’ but when the words in the final rule say that they can, then we all know how bureaucracy can expand,” Peterson said.

Court rulings had blunted the impact on Nebraska — and Iowa to an extent — so most Midlands farmers had not yet faced actual fines or compliance costs.

“There was never any enforcement,” Peterson said. “None of it actually went into effect.”

But many were clearly worried, and they didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that they were out to harm the environment.

“Farmers live on the land,” Peterson said. “We want clean water. We don’t pollute on purpose. The land is our largest asset. It’s been passed down generationally from the time this area was settled. … We wouldn’t endanger our own families or risk the thought of damaging that land and the ability to pass it down to the next generation.”

The Iowa and Nebraska Farm Bureaus both released statements welcoming Tuesday’s announcement.

Iowa and Nebraska’s Republican governors, along with all four GOP senators from the two states, have been critical of the Obama administration’s water regulations known as Waters of the United States, or WOTUS.

And they were full of praise for this week’s action by the Trump administration.

“This new proposal returns more power to the states and private land owners where it belongs,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a press release. “From family farms to commercial developers, this certainty is critical for the job creators who provide opportunities and grow Nebraska.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa told reporters just before Tuesday’s announcement that he was looking for this administration to pull back on the previous administration’s overreach.

“I hope there’s no regulation whatsoever,” Grassley said. “Because anything that the government’s trying to do that’s going to put government regulation over common farming practices — like it would be when it controlled 96 percent of the land in Iowa under the original rule — we can’t have that and have freedom of agriculture.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

We strive for accuracy. Report a typo, inaccuracy, or mistake here.

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