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Montana Ag Network: Agriculture working to keep water clean and ranchers in business

Posted at 10:53 PM, Mar 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-14 06:11:57-04

BOZEMAN- Farmers and ranchers are dependent on water to grow food and fiber. That’s why agriculture groups are working with others with diverse backgrounds to keep America’s waters healthy for everyone to enjoy.

In recent years, government regulations created concern for agriculturalists and landowners.  One regulation was the 2015 Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS), which would have expanded the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. WOTUS was opposed by agriculture groups because of its vagueness on what waters fell under the rule.

The Trump Administration’s EPA heard agriculture’s call for a common-sense approach to regulatory reform under the Clean Water Act that all could understand and follow.

Scot Yager is chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Yager says though it has been a long road, WOTUS is in the homestretch.

“We have the potential to have a good outcome for cattle producers across the country,” said Yager. “Currently, the replacement WOTUS rule is in an open comment period, and that replacement rule is basically what is going to replace the disastrous and illegal 2015 WOTUS Rule.”

As agriculture celebrates a new WOTUS Rule, a lesser-known Clean Water Act issue from the state of Hawaii may impact farmers and ranchers.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the County of Maui vs. Hawaii Wildlife Fund case in the fall of 2019. The cattlemen’s association says the court’s decision could have a lasting impact on agriculture.

“The County of Maui case is a Clean Water Act case, but it’s different from WOTUS,” Yager explained. “It’s about groundwater and pollution through groundwater. The County of Maui is about a wastewater treatment facility, but the implications of that case can go as far as agriculture.”

NCBA explained, for cattle operations, what the EPA defines as “pollutants” are often nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus. Ranchers would fall under the same oversight as a wastewater treatment facility, when they are not the same.  They claim the Supreme Court’s decision has the potential to significantly expand EPA ability to regulate agriculture under the Clean Water Act.

“Up to this point, the Clean Water Act has always been about surface water law,” said Yager. “The question before the court is, does the Clean Water Act regulate groundwater pollution?  So, if you think about that in the context of how we have historically thought about the Clean Water Act, it’s always been a surface water law.”

If the Supreme Court decides that the Clean Water Act governs groundwater it has the potential to impact Montana ranchers and feedlot operators.

“You may now need a Clean Water Act permit for what you’re doing on your ranch,” Yager added. It’s a big issue for NCBA and producers across the country.

Story by Lane Nordlund, MTN News