The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have withdrawn the controversial interpretive rule that ag groups contend would narrow agricultural exemptions under the Clean Water Act.
The agencies, on Jan. 29, issued a memorandum withdrawing the interpretive rule, which became effective in March of last year, from the agencies’ larger proposal to clarify the definition of “waters of the United States” in the act.
The agencies withdrew the interpretive rule, effective immediately, as directed by Congress in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriation Act, 2015, the memorandum states.
Although withdrawn, the rule is still under consideration by the agencies as they sort through more than 1 million comments received during a comment period that ended in November.
Ag organizations overwhelmingly wanted the interpretive rule — regarding Section 404 exemptions — scrapped, saying it would lead to cost-prohibitive requirements, leave producers open to litigation and discourage participation in conservation programs.
The agencies contended the rule was meant to interpret and clarify congressional intent regarding dredge and fill exemptions for CWA discharge permits.
The rule stated that producers are exempt from 56 routine farming practices “if” they comply with detailed Natural Resources Conservation Service technical conservation standards. Until March 2014, those conservation standards were voluntary and the farming practices exempt from the permit process.
Ag groups opposed the rule, saying it narrows the scope of what is considered normal farming practices and those practices would now require mandatory compliance with NRCS standards to be exempt.
In addition, they claimed it would change the role of NRCS from friendly adviser to enforcer, raised questions whether conforming to NRCS standards was still voluntary and left producers uncertain as whether to follow NRCS standards or industry best management practices.
The National Milk Producers Federation said the interpretive rule could have actually discouraged water conservation and environmental best practices.
“Our concern … is that it could have altered the long-standing and productive relationship between farmers and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in a way that would have made it harder for farmers to implement water conservation measures,” Jamie Jonker, National Milk’s vice president for sustainability and scientific affairs, said in a press release.
National Corn Growers Association also applauded the withdrawal of the interpretive rule and called for continued dialogue on the larger WOTUS proposal and how the Clean Water Act is administered.