agriculture

Protecting Clean Water While Respecting Agriculture

Rule does not create any new permitting requirements, maintains all previous exemptions and exclusions

By Administrator Gina McCarthy and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy

Today, EPA and the Army finalized a rule under the Clean Water Act to protect the streams and wetlands we depend on for our health, our economy, and our way of life.

The Clean Water Act has protected our health for more than 40 years—and helped our nation clean up hundreds of thousands of miles of waterways that were choked by industrial pollution, untreated sewage, and garbage for decades.

But Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006 put protection of 60 percent of our nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands into question. At the same time, we understand much more today about how waters connect to each other than we did in decades past. Scientists, water quality experts, and local water managers are better able than ever before to pinpoint the waters that impact our health and the environment the most.

Members of Congress, farmers, ranchers, small business owners, hunters, anglers, and the public have called on EPA and the Army to make a rule to clarify where the Clean Water Act applies, and bring it in line with the law and the latest science. Today, we’re answering that call.

Every lake and every river depends on the streams and wetlands that feed it—and we can’t have healthy communities downstream without healthy headwaters upstream. The Clean Water Rule will protect streams and wetlands and provide greater clarity and certainty to farmers, all without creating any new permitting requirements for agriculture and while maintaining all existing exemptions and exclusions.

The agencies did extensive outreach on the Clean Water Rule, hosting more than 400 meetings across the country and receiving more than a million public comments. EPA officials visited farms in Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Vermont.

Our nation’s original conservationists—our farmers, ranchers, and foresters—were among the most crucial voices who weighed in during this process. Farmers have a critical job to do; our nation depends on them for food, fiber, and fuel, and they depend on clean water for their livelihoods.

Normal farming and ranching—including planting, harvesting, and moving livestock—have long been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation, and the Clean Water Rule doesn’t change that. It respects producers’ crucial role in our economy and respects the law. We’d like give a few more specifics on our final rule, starting with what it doesn’t do.

  • The rule doesn’t add any new permitting requirements for agriculture.
  • It doesn’t protect new kinds of waters that the Clean Water Act didn’t historically cover. It doesn’t regulate most ditches and excludes groundwater, shallow subsurface flows, and tile drains. And it doesn’t change policy on irrigation or water transfers.
  • It doesn’t touch land use or private property rights. The Clean Water Rule only deals with the pollution and destruction of waterways.
  • Again, our rule doesn’t touch long-standing Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions for agriculture. It specifically recognizes the crucial role farmers play and actually adds exclusions for features like artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from construction, and grass swales.

What the rule does is simple: it protects clean water, and it provides clarity on which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act so they can be protected from pollution and destruction.

Feedback from the agricultural community led us to define tributaries more clearly. The rule is precise about the streams being protected so that it can’t be interpreted to pick up erosion in a farmer’s field. The rule says a tributary has to show physical features of flowing water to warrant protection.

We also got feedback that our proposed definition of ditches was confusing. We’re only interested in the ones that act like tributaries and could carry pollution downstream—so we changed the definition in the final rule to focus on tributaries. So ditches that are not constructed in streams and that flow only when it rains are not covered.

We’ve also provided certainty in how far safeguards extend to nearby waters—the rule sets physical, measurable limits for the first time. For example, an adjacent water is protected if it’s within the 100-year floodplain and within 1,500 feet of a covered waterway. By setting bright lines, agricultural producers and others will know exactly where the Clean Water Act applies, and where it doesn’t.

Farmers and ranchers work hard every day to feed America and the world. In this final rule, we’ve provided additional certainty that they’ll retain all of their Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions—so they can continue to do their jobs, and continue to be conservation leaders.
We appreciate everyone’s input as we’ve worked together to finalize a Clean Water Rule that keeps pollution out of our water, while providing the additional clarity our economy needs. Learn more here.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Thanking America’s Sustainable Farmers

By Christina Badaracco

While working on education and outreach in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Ocean, and Watersheds, I have been particularly inspired by our work with agriculture. As an environmentalist and a foodie, I love learning about the connection between healthy food and sustainable agriculture, and I am always eagerly looking to share that information with the public. This is why I’m excited about our efforts to interview and feature for the American public “farmer heroes,” who manage the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution on their farms and grow America’s food supply in a sustainable manner.

Through our “Farmer Hero” campaign, and through my own personal purchasing decisions as an informed consumer, I am supporting farmers who protect local land and water resources while undertaking the critical role of producing America’s food supply.

I was first exposed to the world of sustainable farming in college, and have since been inspired by the videos and writing of Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia and a leader in the local food movement. I had the pleasure of visiting his farm last fall, and seeing the clever contraptions (e.g., the Eggmobile and Gobbledygo) and beautiful scenery I had read about in his books. Views of dirt-covered pigs, running around in the woods; ripe red tomatoes, grown without chemicals; and the engaging storytelling of our host were a treat and well worth the drive out from D.C.

In late May, I was thrilled to return to the area to meet other farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. I visited Robert Schreiber of Bell’s Lane Farm, and saw his on-farm composting operations and sales. I also met Gerald Garber from Cave View Farms, and learned how his livestock fencing and no-till farming reduce pollution runoff.

It is a delight to meet these farmers who have offered to share their stories: their goals for their properties and families, their innovative approaches for managing nutrients, and above all, their willingness to protect their local environment and the many lands downstream (http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/farmer-heroes-manage-nutrients-farm). I am encouraged to see EPA building better relationships with farmers to protect the same land, water, and food on which we all rely.

To Mr. Salatin and the other farmers who read this blog; who are conserving their resources, protecting their local waterways, and raising their animals and crops sustainably; and whom I one day hope to meet, we thank you. You are our heroes.

About the author: Christina Badaracco has worked in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds since 2012. She works on communication and outreach projects regarding nutrient pollution, and is particularly interested in sustainable agriculture.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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From Farmers to Kayakers, Clean Water the Topic of the Day

by Tom Damm

 

June 12, 2014 16th Annual River Sojourn,  Valley Forge National Historical Park, PA

June 12, 2014
16th Annual River Sojourn,
Valley Forge National Historical Park, PA

It was a busy day for the nation’s highest ranking water official and our EPA Regional Administrator on June 12 as they participated in a series of activities to bring attention to and clear up misconceptions about an important clean water proposal.

The day for EPA Acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner began with a radio show broadcast live on two NPR stations in central Pennsylvania. Nancy fielded questions from Smart Talk host Scott Lamar for a half hour on a rule designed to clarify protections under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s waters.

You can hear it here.

The proposed Waters of the U.S. rule was also the topic as Nancy was joined by Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin at the Berks County Agricultural Center in Leesport, PA for a two-hour roundtable discussion with farmers and other members of the agriculture industry.

As part of a productive dialogue, Nancy and Shawn explained that the proposed rule preserves existing Clean Water Act exemptions and exclusions for agricultural activities and has additional benefits for the farming community.

Then it was on to Valley Forge National Historical Park for a rendezvous with dozens of kayakers, anglers and others participating in the 16th Annual Schuylkill River Sojourn.

The sojourners had arrived for lunch at the park on Day 6 of their trip down the Schuylkill – named the 2014 River of the Year in Pennsylvania.

There was some intermittent light rain as the river enthusiasts gathered on benches under rows of overhangs to eat some food and gain some unexpected attention from the Philadelphia media gathered to hear the EPA officials. Nancy told the assembled group that, “The question today is what can we do to make sure that we are leaving behind waters that are useable, waters that are safe to drink, waters that are safe to swim in, to kayak in, to eat fish from.”

By clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act, Nancy said, “We can make the system work a lot better, more efficiently, more cost effectively, and ensure that those stream systems are protected for the future.”

After the talk, the kayakers headed back to the river’s edge, ready to begin their next leg on the sojourn and hoping to beat the heavier rain expected later in the day.  Nancy and Shawn stayed a while longer to talk to others interested in the clean water rule.

The public comment period for the rule has been extended to October 20, 2014.

 

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

 

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Farm Conservation Practices are Working in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

by Kelly Shenk

As the agricultural advisor for EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany the EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator in talks with farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through roundtable discussions and tours of their farms. We’ve observed their successes, challenges, and opportunities.  It’s encouraging to see how engaged farmers are in implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality.

Last month the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that pollution controls put in place over the last four years have resulted in an estimated 7% reduction of nitrogen, 11% reduction of phosphorus, and 6% reduction of sediment in the Bay Watershed.

Agriculture is responsible for about one-third of these reductions because producers have stepped up their conservation practices such as cover crops that take up residual nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil after crops are harvested. Other effective conservation practices include tillage that prevents nutrients and sediment from running off of cropland; and fencing to keep cows out of streams.

While this progress is encouraging, there’s still much that needs doing to restore the Bay.  Using 2009 as a baseline, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL or pollution diet calls for having measures in place by 2017 to achieve at least 60 percent of the pollution reductions necessary for restoring the Bay to water quality standards.  The Bay jurisdictions are in the process of achieving this objective through upgrading of wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, increased implementation of agricultural conservation practices, improving urban stormwater management, and addressing air pollution sources. All sources are tackling their share of the challenge

The pace of the Bay jurisdictions’ pollution reduction efforts will get quicker moving forward.  For agriculture, I think the keys to success are strong state programs, targeted federal and state financial and technical assistance, incentives that engage more producers, and continued innovation.

We’re encouraged by some of the progress that’s already being made.  We are seeing increased financing for high priority practices promoted by the States such as stream exclusion and cover crops.  States are strengthening their programs for addressing water quality concerns from small animal operations.  We’re also seeing incentives such as Ag Certainty programs to engage more producers in conservation practices.

In my time out in the field, I am always inspired at the creativity and innovation of farmers.  With a good knowledge of the States’ pollution reduction goals, targeted financial and technical assistance, and the flexibility to reach water quality goals in a way that works for their business, I’m confident they can get the job done.  But it will take all of us working together in all sectors, building on the progress that we’ve made thus far, and staying on track to reaching our goals of restoring our local waters and the magnificence of the Chesapeake Bay.

Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agricultural Advisor

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Clearer Protections for Headwater Streams

by Randy Pomponio

WOUS2Spring is finally here, and with it arrives new beginnings. Flowers and plants find new life, our avian friends fill the air, and the streams and creeks that run through our neighborhoods and parks are bubbling along.  This spring also brings a new day for determining Clean Water Act protection for streams and wetlands, which had become confusing and complex following several Supreme Court rulings.  After roughly a decade of confusion, the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule clarifies the jurisdictional status of seasonal and rain-dependent streams, wetlands, and isolated water bodies.

Under this clearer definition, the Clean Water Act will continue to protect our aquatic resources, including some of our most important waterways —headwater streams.  Headwater streams comprise over half of the total stream miles in the mid-Atlantic states, and play a fundamental role in reducing flooding, providing wildlife habitat, recharging groundwater, filtering pollution,  along with supporting hunting and fishing. Many of these benefits can be readily attributable to streams which only flow for part of the year. The vast majority of people in the mid-Atlantic rely, at least in part, on these types of streams for their drinking water supplies.

By clarifying the significance of these vital ecological functions – the proposed rule would provide for an estimated $388 million to $514 million annually of indirect benefits through the protection of  aquatic resources, just like your neighborhood creek.

If you are out for a hike this spring, and you notice that you need to leap over a stream that was dry back in the fall; that’s the type of water that will continue to be protected with this proposed rule.  Take a moment to consider the complexity of our aquatic resources, and how that seasonal creek contributes to the overall health of say, the mighty Delaware, Ohio, Potomac, and James River basins.  Under our watch and in our care are precious and life-sustaining tributaries.  This spring, we should celebrate their protection afforded by an illuminated Clean Water Act.

About the Author:  Randy Pomponio is the Director of the EPA Region 3 Environmental Assessment & Innovation Division.  He enjoys learning about our fascinating ecosystems and experiencing them through hiking, fishing, scuba diving, and best of all, sharing them with his children and grandchildren.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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My First “Introduction” to Cesar Chavez, Farmworker Advocate and Labor Leader

In March 1968, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy joined Cesar Chavez and 8,000 farmworkers in Delano, CA, to end Chavez’s 25-day fast. Although I was young, the image of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Chavez on T.V. was embedded in my mind. It was the first time I had heard about the hunger strikes and learned that some people in this country, particularly farmworkers, were not being treated fairly. It was my first introduction to the need for social justice.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and Cesar Chavez

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State

Now, I am an Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and one of my responsibilities is to help ensure protections from pesticide exposure are in place for farmworkers. Two million farmworkers grow, tend and harvest our food. They deserve to be protected.

This week, the 15th annual Farmworker Awareness Week which concludes with a national day to commemorate the legacy of Cesar Chavez, we recognize the important contribution farmworkers make to our economy and our local communities. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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It’s all about the Network: Funding Agricultural Practices that Restore Clean Water

A network of technical professionals visit a PA dairy farm that received financial assistance to install agricultural conservation practices which are good for business and local water quality.

A network of technical professionals visit a PA dairy farm that received financial assistance to install agricultural conservation practices which are good for business and local water quality.

 

by Kelly Shenk

 If you are a farmer in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, there are some great workshops providing information on ways to finance conservation practices to restore local waters and the Chesapeake Bay. The University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center  is holding a series of Agricultural Finance Workshops in Delaware and West Virginia and the Upper Susquehanna region in Pennsylvania later this year.  In January and February, I participated in the Ag Finance workshops that were held in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and found them extremely informative.

These workshops provide a wealth of knowledge about programs to assist in reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution. I learned that while funding is available, certain procedures need to be followed closely.  Some of the types of funding available include: USDA Farm Bill funding; state agricultural cost share funding; federal and state loan programs; public and private grant programs; and tax credits.  There are also creative ways to combine these funding mechanisms that reduce the amount you, as a farmer, would pay.

Take for example, fencing in the Shenandoah Valley. Fencing is a low-tech way to protect waterways by keeping cattle out of streams. There are a number of programs to help fund stream exclusion and we heard about several at the workshop:  Farm Bill programs, the VA agricultural cost share program that covers up to 100% of the cost of stream exclusion, and other programs for farmers who need more flexibility in the type of fence and width of buffer installed. There’s even a program to pay farmers $1 for every foot of fence they have paid for themselves to cover the maintenance costs.

 The workshop presenters are familiar with each other’s programs, so they know how to “piggy back” programs to minimize the cost to farmers.  Most importantly, they know the producers in their region and understand their issues.  They discuss the available options with the farmer, decide on a plan of action, and then identify the program or mix of funding programs that will meet the farmer’s needs.  With this approach, the technical network helps farmers address issues with the least amount of cost, hassle, paperwork, and confusion.

I left these workshops encouraged by the dedicated cadre of technical professionals that are out in the field every day working with farmers to find solutions to protecting water quality while keeping farmers farming.

For more information on future workshops, contact:  Jill Jefferson, University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, at jilljeff@umd.edu.

 

Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agricultural Advisor. 

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Protection Takes a Team

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, herself a veteran of state environmental agencies, always reminds us that environmental protection is an “enterprise.” That means EPA is only one part of a larger effort that keeps people healthy and our natural environment productive. A very important part, to be sure, but EPA can only accomplish our mission by working with partners: state agencies, local communities, businesses large and small, and families who grow the crops that feed our world.

Here in the Heartland, Region 7 recently hosted two important conversations that illustrate why we say, “Environmental protection is a team effort.”

Region 7 includes much of our country’s most productive farmland. From Missouri’s Bootheel, which raises cotton and rice, to Nebraska’s cattle country stretching nearly to the Rockies, agriculture’s engine room drives much of America’s farm output. And when you look west, EPA Region 8 encompasses not just the Dakotas’ irrigated corn and bean producers, but wheat growers on the Plains and stockraisers along the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Utah. This immense agricultural bounty requires the EPA to know farming, and to know farmers. Some of America’s most influential innovators are ag producers and their suppliers, customers, and research institutes at land-grant universities and private firms. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

It’s a phrase you yell to protect against something headed your way. But did you ever think that phrase could be applied to pollutants? Well, it can – vegetative cover acts as a defense against non-point source (NPS) pollutants, protecting our lakes, streams, and water bodies.

Vegetative filter strips and riparian buffers  are conservation practices that help control the amount of sediment and chemicals that are transported from agricultural fields into water bodies. They slow down the speed of runoff and capture nutrients, keep more nutrient-rich topsoil on farmers’ fields, and reduces impacts on downstream ecosystems.

To improve water quality in large watersheds, conservation managers need to know what the problems are, where the pollutants originate, and what conservation practices work best.  However, investigating all of these factors at the watershed-wide level is a very difficult and complex task. This is why EPA is working with partners to supplement an existing watershed simulation model to estimate the efficiency of riparian buffers.

USDA’s watershed simulation model, Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution (AnnAGNPS), is used to evaluate the effect of farming and conservation practices on pollutants and help decide where to put these practices.  AnnAGNPS also predicts the origin and tracks the movement of water, sediment, and chemicals to any location in the watershed.

To supplement this model, researchers from EPA, USDA, and Middle Tennessee State University developed a Geographic Information Systems–based technology that estimates the efficiency of buffers in reducing sediment loads at a watershed scale.

With the addition of this AGNPS Buffer Utility Feature  technology to the USDA model, researchers and watershed conservation managers can evaluate the placement of riparian buffers, track pollution loads to their source, and assess water quality and ecosystem services improvements across their watersheds.

Riparian buffers and other vegetative cover, such as filter strips, are considered an important, effective, and efficient conservation practice that has been shown to protect ecosystem services at a local level. However, their full impact on a watershed-scale is still subject to ongoing research.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Dorothy, I Don’t Think We’re in D.C. Anymore

By Joseph Ziobro

When thinking about a typical work day at EPA, butter sculptures don’t generally come to mind. However, a visit to the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show forever changed my expectations.

Hosted annually in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor farm show in the nation, boasting approximately 1,300 exhibits and 6,000 live animals.

Members of several EPA water programs—both from EPA headquarters in Washington and our regional office in Philadelphia—were invited to Harrisburg by PennAg Industries Association, which advocates for Pennsylvania agricultural producers. Our visit was part of EPA’s ongoing efforts to learn about agriculture and to work with rural communities and agricultural stakeholders.  We want to both help agricultural businesses and promote healthier waters.

Entering the complex, we made our way through the dense crowds. My senses were awakened immediately by the contrasting smells of cooked bacon and fresh manure. PennAg staff gave us a tour of their “Today’s Agriculture” exhibit.

A makeshift barn had been erected where cows, pigs, chickens and ducks were held in conditions that simulate livestock operation conditions. Outside of the barn, a stream, complete with live fish, had been built to demonstrate the connection between agriculture and water quality.

As we took in the exhibits, we were able to introduce ourselves to agriculture producers and business owners. Each took time to answer our questions, and ask us questions of their own. Producers discussed best practices for manure storage and application, and the importance of clean water. We asked farmers for insights into technologies or practices that would help their productivity while ensuring water quality. EPA hopes to engage and empower rural stakeholders by connecting directly with industry members to learn what producers need to thrive in an environmentally-beneficial manner.  To do that, we have to understand the conditions that producers face in the proverbial “trenches.”

Our visit left us with some important takeaways. First, our agricultural partners often go unnoticed. How many of us buy eggs without ever visiting an egg-laying operation? Second, agricultural stakeholders and EPA both want thriving businesses, healthy communities and clean water. Third, there are many more insights that EPA can glean from agribusiness, and much that we can share. Finally, every day at work without a butter sculpture is a minor letdown.

For more information about EPA’s work on animal feeding operations, visit

About the Author: Joseph Ziobro is an ORISE participant in the Rural Branch of the Water Permits Division at EPA. Joseph supports the National Permit Discharge Elimination System permit program for concentrated animal feeding operations.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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