U.S. water quality and the ability of the agriculture industry to affect the precious resource was the focus of a wide-ranging Dec. 3 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing.
The hearing just happened to coincide with developments in several water-related issues in the Mid-South. A day earlier, U.S District Court Judge D. Price Marshall agreed with those opposed to a 6,500-hog farm recently built in the Buffalo River Watershed. Flowing through northeast Arkansas, the Buffalo National River is well-known for its pristine waters, which are claimed to be under threat by the hog operation.
Marshall agreed with a coalition that brought a suit saying federal agencies – both the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration -- didn’t do proper assessments of the farm’s potential environmental impact to the watershed before providing guaranteed loans. “The public interest is best-served by ensuring that federal tax dollars aren’t backing a farm that could be harming natural resources and an endangered species,” said Marshall in his ruling.
In related news, the Arkansas Natural Resource Service announced it was reviewing the final Arkansas Water Plan. The plan, in the works for years, may be adopted as early as Dec. 9.
Back at the Senate hearing (titled “Farmers and Fresh Water: Voluntary Conservation to Protect our Land and Waters”) committee members returned to one topic repeatedly: the EPA’s proposed Waters of the U.S. rule.
The proposed Clean Water Act-related rule has caught the attention of many agriculture advocates who say it will broaden the government’s ability to interfere with land owners to unprecedented levels.
Based on a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, if the federal government can demonstrate a body of water has a “significant nexus” to a regulated waterway then it too can be regulated. This didn’t sit well with Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford, who spoke at the summer meeting of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas. “I’m almost certain that you can demonstrate interconnectivity with virtually any water to a regulated waterway. There’s so much ambiguity and subjectivity. And they’re basing the entire expansion on ‘significant nexus?’”
Crawford brought up the example of a swimming pool that, following major rainfall, overflows and eventually drains into a regulated river. Provided with the scenario, government officials have told the lawmaker that swimming pools are exempt under the rule.
“Well, swimming pools are exempt as long as they haven’t spilled their banks,” said Crawford. The officials “can’t and won’t clarify their position on that. Is that example a huge stretch? Maybe, maybe not.
“Have you got a tail-water recovery system on your farm? A stock pond? Those are designed to overflow by design. Where does the government authority stop? I don’t think they have any intention of having” a limit. “Waterways of the U.S. is a gross overreach.”
During the Dec. 3 hearing, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman was especially worried that the EPA rule would discourage farmers from joining voluntary government conservation programs like EQIP. “I’m very opposed to the Waters of the U.S. and believe it would be very detrimental to (voluntary conservation) programs.”
That led to an exchange between the senator and Jason Weller, Chief of the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
Boozman: “What will Waters of the United States going to do to the voluntary (conservation) programs and the progress we’ve made so far?”
Weller: “We’ve heard at USDA concerns from many stakeholders about the proposed rule.”
Boozman: “I guess it’s over a million.”
Weller: “A million that the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have received, yes.”
Boozman: “Most of those are negative.”
Weller: “Yes, but I’ll defer to the EPA and Corps and let them characterize. I know from farming, particularly, there is concern about the potential impacts of the proposed rule. We’re concerned as well about the potential disincentives for folks to participate in programs.
“We really feel, though, from (the USDA’s) standpoint that the voluntary collaborative approach is very effective. It’s our intent to be there working with producers. That’s one of the purposes of EQIP -- to help producers address or obviate the need for regulation whether that’s the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act.”
The NRCS, continued Weller, views itself as “if not the sword arm then the shield arm, in many cases, to help producers address regulatory pressures they are either experiencing or may experience.”
Later, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts -- set to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee in the new year -- asked Weller if there was any consideration of “withdrawing the (Waters of the U.S.) interpretive rule until the full Waters of the U.S. rule is finalized?”
Weller said he’d defer to the EPA and Corps. “But, yes, that’s one option being considered. … I think we need to take very close heed the concern from farmers and the confusion that the interpretive rule has unfortunately created. If anything, it needs to be simplified so it’s more clear what the intent was and what the benefits are.”
Weller then faced a bit of finger-wagging by South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Addressing the proposed EPA rule, Thune said, “There isn’t anything I’m familiar with initiated by EPA, or any other federal department for that matter, that has led to so much concern and fear in my home state. I want to reiterate and remind you of your obligation and responsibility -- as well as (Agriculture) Secretary Vilsack and others at the USDA -- to make absolutely certain that you guard the welfare and wellbeing of production agriculture and our farmers and ranchers. EPA seems to be moving ahead with this rule despite broad bipartisan opposition across the country.”
As for the positives with agriculture and water quality, Boozman asked Marty Matlock, University of Arkansas professor, Biological and Agricultural Engineering, about the value of technology and innovation in making conservation more effective.
“The technologies we’re seeing emerge at this very moment allow us to know better what’s happening around us,” said Matlock. “These are sentinel technologies associated with remote sensing. They’re from aerial platforms or even low-altitude microsatellite platforms. Their ability to actually track what’s happening on the landscape has improved even in the last year -- it’s happening that fast.
“And (these technologies) will transform how we understand the landscape because we’ll be able to see it in real time in very short order. That means anywhere on the landscape not just in very targeted areas. That also means our ability to understand sources and causality will improve.”
The technology for tracking impacts in water quality – using sensors – will improve, said Matlock. “We’re getting to the point where we don’t even have to go into the river, take a sample, take it back to the lab, analyze it and then wait three to five days before we know what’s happening. … That means we can intervene earlier when there’s an emerging problem.”
Matlock nodded to algal blooms in Ohio that shut down water service to Toledo residents for three days last summer.
“Algal blooms are ripe for detection with remotely sensing technologies. The problem is we don’t know how to interdict them. We don’t know what to do to prevent them. We have much to learn but our ability to understand is really limited by our ability to know what’s happening. Our ability to know what’s happening has expanded because it’s so much cheaper now to deploy sentinel technologies.
“Farmers have soil moisture sensors whose sensitivity was unimaginable 10 years ago. They use them every day and they’re almost throwaway -- just plow them over because they’re that cheap.”