Q: Does the Environmental Protection Agency have jurisdiction over waterways on Iowa farms?
A: Congress writes environmental laws to set in place policies that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land in which our food grows. The executive branch is tasked with faithfully carrying out these laws. In keeping with our system of checks and balances, the judicial branch has been called upon to determine whether the nation’s environmental laws stay within constitutional boundaries, including whether the executive branch administers the laws as Congress intended or exceeds its authority over individual rights. Not surprisingly, a complex web of agencies, bureaus and departments has emerged within the federal bureaucracy to develop and implement regulatory, enforcement and compliance measures to uphold federal laws. The USDA and Army Corps of Engineers carry out flood control, water quality and soil conservation programs, as an example. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was established to coordinate implementation of federal laws written to safeguard human health and natural resources. That’s a tall order, particularly considering environmental policy significantly impacts economic growth in the areas of energy, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and international trade. In the last four decades, the EPA has increased its reach into state and local governments, communities, homes, businesses and farms. As its reputation for overreach continues its expansive trajectory, family farmers in Iowa are raising concerns. Specifically, EPA regulators are seeking to make rule changes to the Clean Water Act that would assert agency authority over small, even intermittent waters that currently are regulated at the state or local level. Should the proposed new rules greatly expand the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act far beyond its traditional limits, the farming community will face real uncertainty. Many farmers in Iowa have misgivings about EPA assurances that the proposed rules will not interfere with the normal operations of ditches, tile drainage systems or streambeds on their property.
Q: What happens next with the EPA’s proposed regulations?
A: Considering the EPA’s track record when it comes to American agriculture, it’s not surprising Iowa farmers feel a bit like fish bait in this debate. The vast majority of EPA regulators have never set foot on a farm. I make it a priority to educate EPA administrators and regulators about agriculture so they have a better appreciation for how proposed rules and regulations impact a family farmer’s day-to-day business and livelihood. Last April, I shared concerns held by many in rural America with the President’s nominee to head the EPA. At that time, we discussed the EPA’s releasing personal information about livestock producers to political activists; concerns of rural electric cooperatives regarding costly new regulations for coal-fired electricity; and aerial surveillance of farms. As with most federal agencies, let’s just say it requires diligent oversight to reel in bureaucratic efforts to expand the size and scope of their jurisdiction. The latest red herring at the EPA involves its efforts to win regulatory authority of isolated water bodies that have the most tangential relationship to “navigable” waterways. In other words, it seems the EPA is fishing for ways to cast a wider net to expand implementation of the Clean Water Act over virtually all waters in the United States, public and private. Court rulings have averted past efforts by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to claim jurisdiction over isolated wetlands and streambeds. So now the EPA wants to “clarify” which waterways should be subject to federal regulation. Changes to this federal rule may open a can of worms for farmers. Would farm ponds, drainage ditches, culverts, dams and dry creek beds fall under the EPA lens? Would farmers need costly environmental assessments and permits before they start work in their fields? These are legitimate questions that deserve valid answers. The public will have 90 days to comment on the EPA’s proposed rule change after it is published in the Federal Register. The Federal Register is a daily journal where federal agencies submit proposed rules, final rules and official notices for the public record. I encourage Iowans to register their view, and I will continue working from the U.S. Senate to rein in bureaucratic overreach.