Water proposal scrutinized

PARKERSBURG-State farming officials are urging farmers to submit comments against a proposed rule change in the federal Clean Water Act they say will adversely affect local farms.

There was a packed house at the Judge Black Judicial Annex as around 100 people attended a meeting where the Wood County Farm Bureau hosted representatives from the West Virginia Farm Bureau to discuss the proposed changes to the “Definition of ‘Waters of the United States’ Under the Clean Water Act.”

The state bureau said it is holding meetings around the state to let farmers know about the implications of the proposed rule change and encourage farmers to inundate the federal Environmental Protection Agency with comments against it.

Under the proposed change, which is more than 370-pages long, the geography of West Virginia opens up a lot of land where runoff occurs to fall under the new guidelines of “Waters of the United States,” officials said.

Joan Harman, director of public relations for the West Virginia Farm Bureau, said this was the most dangerous regulation their people have ever seen.

“This is going to affect more than just agriculture,” Harman said. “This is going to affect the mining industry, oil and gas development, housing, forestry and any industry that disturbs the land in anyway. They will all be affected by this and feel the impact just like agriculture is.”

The Clean Water Act came in 1972 in response to environmental disasters and set up standards on how to keep waterways clean. Exclusions in the act were made for agriculture.

“The proposed rule is now doing away with most of those exemptions,” Harman said.

The rule originally defined the waters the act had jurisdiction over as “navigable waters” referring to sizable rivers and streams, but not perennial streams (that have water all year), intermittent streams (show water part of the year) and ephemeral streams (that only have water after rainfall).

Under the proposed changes, the perennial, intermittent and ephemeral streams would be subject to EPA jurisdiction and regulation, Harman said.

In a press release issued by the federal EPA, officials said the proposed rule clarifies protection for streams and wetlands. The proposed definitions of waters will apply to all Clean Water Act programs. It does not protect any new types of waters that have not historically been covered under the Clean Water Act.

The press release said most seasonal and rain-dependent streams will be protected; wetlands near rivers and streams will be protected; and other types of waters may have more uncertain connections with downstream water and protection will be evaluated through a case specific analysis of whether the connection is significant.

The proposed rule preserves the Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions for agriculture, the EPA press release said.

Harman said they do not.

She presented slides of farms in West Virginia that have grooves and other natural features where water could run following a rainstorm that could be claimed as “Waters of the United States” under this proposed rule, she said. It could also give the EPA jurisdiction over small ponds, ditches and rainwater flowing through low spots, she said.

“They are claiming outright federal jurisdiction and they are narrowing the exemptions available to agriculture,” Harman said.

It could impact where farmers can put fertilizers, plant crops, build fence lines and how they can conduct the normal operations of their farms, she said. The proposals could have the authority to keep farmers from farming portions of their land, she said.

Jeff McElfresh, who has a farm in the Pond Creek area of Wood County, said this proposed rule could have a devastating impact on his cattle operation. He and his father have 50 head of cattle, two bulls and around 50 calves. He described his property as a “hillside farm.”

“If this goes into effect, I will basically have to pull my livestock off my property,” he said. “(The proposed rule) would claim my property. It will be useless.”

He said his hillside land is draining down into ditches, which could be claimed by this proposed rule.

“We have manmade ditches and built ponds for water to serve our livestock,” McElfresh said. “We paid money out of our pockets to make our land grassy and full of water.

“This is going to completely stop our businesses, our farm. All of our beef cattle will have to come off this land and we would have to sell them.”

Other farmers nodded in agreement with McElfresh with a number saying they would end up having to sell their cattle.

“Your rural Wood County will get shutdown,” McElfresh said.

Officials are trying to extend the comment period another 90 days beyond its deadline of July 21 and to get local farmers to start submitting comments to the EPA on how this will impact their operations.