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WOTUS redefined

EPA’s Wheeler, USDA’s Perdue detail proposal on water protection that is ‘fair and honest to American farmers’ at Lebanon event
Story and photos by: Chris Villines 1/28/2019


On Dec. 18 at the Wilson County Exposition Center, Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Lee addresses farmers and ag industry leaders in attendance for a special announcement on the “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, rule. Lee pledged to work closely with the Trump administration to further advance agriculture in the Volunteer State.
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Working hand in hand, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have acted on the Trump administration’s proposal to redefine the “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, rule.

It was this common cause that brought Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives, Tennessee political leaders, and more than 400 farmers and state agricultural officials to Lebanon on Dec. 18.

At an event hosted by Tennessee Farm Bureau and held at the Wilson County Exposition Center, Wheeler and Perdue detailed the proposal, which they said would replace the Obama administration’s WOTUS rule enacted in 2015. Under that rule, the federal government has oversight of a large range of ditches, lakes, and other bodies of smaller streams and tributaries that fed into waterways protected by the 1972 Clean Water Act.

“When the Obama [administration] EPA put forward the 2015 definition [of WOTUS], they claimed it was in the interest of water quality, but it was really about power — power in the hands of federal government over farmers, developers, and landowners,” said Wheeler, who was appointed as acting administrator of the EPA in July 2018. “We are here today to tell you that we are putting an end to that power grab. This proposal respects the limits of the Clean Water Act and provides Tennessee and its landowners the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow their local economies.”

Perdue stressed that to farmers, who he hailed as “rule followers,” the existing WOTUS regulations were burdensome.

“It is very unsettling to be on your own land doing what you’ve done for years and a federal regulator comes out and says, ‘Here’s a summons. You are violating the law,’” said Perdue, who has long been a proponent of repealing the 2015 WOTUS rule. “The rules we were living under were oppressive.”

Wheeler highlighted three principles central to the new proposal:

(1) Property owners should be able to stand on their property and be able to tell if their water is federal or state without having to hire outside professionals;

(2) Clearly defining the differences between federally protected water lands and state-protected water lands; and

(3) Providing the certainty the American public needs in a manner that will be upheld by the courts.

Under the new WOTUS, states and tribes would have the power to manage their waters in a way that best protects natural resources and local economies, Wheeler said.

“Congress did not intend the federal government to be the nation’s development planner,” he stressed. “Tennessee has invested significant resources to understand and protect its waterways, and it’s time Washington, D.C., recognized that.”

Wheeler said the new proposal identifies six categories of waters that fall under WOTUS — navigable waters (a river or something a boat can drive down); tributaries to the navigable waters; certain ditches (used for navigation or ones affected by tides); certain lakes and ponds in the tributary, navigable water system; impoundments; and wetlands next to these waters.

He added that waterways that do not fall under WOTUS include features that only hold water when it rains or in response to a rainfall, groundwater, prior converted croplands, ditches (most roadside or farm), storm water control features, and wastewater/waste treatment systems.

“Our formula for success is clear and straightforward — incentivize innovation, not stifle it with regulation, encourage cooperation with the states, not coercion, and promote the rule of law,” Wheeler concluded.

Duvall said the proposal for a new WOTUS is part of the current administration’s quest to “help our farmers be more productive and regenerate rural America.”

“The previous Waters of the U.S. rule was the largest land grab in the history of our government,” the American Farm Bureau president said. “Five years ago, we started a campaign called ‘Ditch the Rule,’ and today we’re ditching that ruling. We have the right to do what we want to do with our land again and take care of it like we know how to take care of it. It’s a good day for American agriculture.”

Wheeler urged the farmers to read the new proposal in full and provide their input.

“Please make sure your voices are heard,” he said. “Please let us know if we got it right. Tell us if the definitions are correct.”

Echoed Perdue: “Don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to this proposal. Send a response in your own words and say, ‘I like what you’re doing and here is one suggestion you might think about. Don’t think that it doesn’t matter what you say — it does.”

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