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

Posted at 2:19 PM, Mar 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-14 18:20:17-04

BOZEMAN – Farmers and ranchers are dependent on water to grow food and fiber and that’s why some agriculture groups are working with others with diverse backgrounds to keep America’s waters healthy.

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 EPA took another approach for clarification of the act under President Trump’s Administration and Scott Yager, the chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said WOTUS is now in the homestretch.

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 said 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, according to the NCBA. 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 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.

-Reported by Lane Nordlund/MTN News