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Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City on Clean Water Proposal, As Prepared

07/10/2014
Thanks, Bob. Let me also give a shout out to my amazing EPA Region 7 Administrator, Karl Brooks, who’s doing great work out here.

Yesterday I was in Columbia touring Bill and Judy Heffernan’s beautiful 500-acre farm. I also got a chance to sit down with farmers in the area. The Heffernans were so gracious for having us; I can’t thank them enough. This was just one of the many farms I’ve seen lately. Obviously, not all farms are the same, from what farmers grow to the size and scale of their operations. But the pride I saw on Bill’s face about his stewardship is a common thread that connects so many farmers and ranchers.

Visits like this are part of a broader outreach effort across the country – because a priority of mine is making sure farmers and ranchers are heard loud and clear in the work we do. EPA shares so many common values with the agriculture community; it’s time to recognize that and to enhance our work together.

Today, I’m here to talk about our Clean Water Act proposal, which was called for by the Supreme Court and by numerous state organizations, as well as numerous agriculture stakeholder groups. The aim of this proposal is clear: to clear up legal confusion and protect waters that are vital to our health, using sound science so that EPA can get its job done.

It is crucial that we keep farmers and the ag industry as a whole doing
what they do best: producing the food, fuel, and fiber that provide for our American way of life.

The kinds of water bodies we’ll protect provide drinking water to 1 in 3 Americans. Right here in Kansas City, at least 9 in 10 residents get their drinking water from sources that could be at risk.

But I know that no one understands the importance of water quality better than the agriculture community. You’re the standard-bearer for stewardship of our nation’s land and water, while growing a farm economy that’s the envy of the world
. It isn’t said enough – thank you for all that you do.

So, it’s clear why we have been directed to act and what we are trying to accomplish with this rule. But unfortunately, even as we are taking action, misinformation is becoming the story, while the legitimate, serious issues that we need to talk about are taking the back seat. We have to change that, and this trip tells me that we can.

You know, in D.C., all we hear about are things like: EPA’s new rule will shut down the July 4
th fireworks, EPA is trying to regulate the rain in puddles on driveways and in playgrounds, and every conservation practice that we all want to see happen will now require a permit.

None of that is true. That’s D.C. But today and yesterday, here in the heartland, it reminded me how nice it is to be back in the real world. Folks came to a roundtable to express their concerns with the proposed rule, and we were able to have real conversation about real serious issues. Those are the conversations that EPA is going to show up for every time. That’s a big step forward. We ditched the D.C. myths and talked about the issues that matter to all of us. If we keep this up, we will have a final rule of which we will all be very proud.

While EPA feels confident that, under this proposal, fewer waters will be jurisdictional than under President Reagan, we heard loud and clear that farmers and ranchers rightly need to know what this rule means for them. And we are beginning to answer those questions together.

We agree that people have a right to healthy land and clean water, so we have to make sure people understand that the protections EPA puts in place are reasonable and consistently implemented. That’s how we make sure everyone is playing by the same rules, and that everyone can fully work their farms and ranches with confidence and certainty.

All of us rely on science and accurate facts. So it’s great to be here to talk facts and roll up our sleeves to work together to benefit producers and public health. Yesterday, I heard very clearly some of the concerns about our proposed rule.

We heard fears that EPA is regulating groundwater. This is not true; groundwater regulations do and will fall under the purview of the states. EPA is not regulating all activities in floodplains, or every puddle, dry wash, and erosional feature. In fact, we are doing just the opposite. If cattle cross a wet field – that’s a normal farming practice, and all normal farming practices are still exempt.

On the Herffernans’ farm, we saw lots of collection ponds, terraces, and other conservation practices – all of which are good for his farm and great for water quality – and none of them needed a permit.

The bottom line is – if you didn’t need a permit before this proposed rule, you won’t need one when it’s finalized. For example, while Bill Heffernan did have a pond that was jurisdictional – that is, connected to a larger water system that required protection – he did not need a permit, because he wasn’t doing anything like filling it or discharging pollution.

So what about ditches? EPA is
not saying that all ditches are jurisdictional. In fact, our proposal specifically says we are not regulating all ditches – unlike the current, existing regulations. Why did we do that? While some ditches are connected to larger water systems and are vital to public health and water quality, the vast majority are not, and therefore not jurisdictional. Most of them don’t look or feel like a stream, so they are off the table.

But keep in mind that up to 117 million people rely on waters that run seasonally, as opposed to 24 hours a day, every day. So if your ditch looks and acts like a stream, it may need protection, even if it runs only seasonally. That doesn’t mean you need a permit, just that you should take care to ensure that it continues to serve us all well.

So let’s talk about the interpretive rule and the 56 conservation practices that are good for production and good for water quality. That rule seems to have generated lots of confusion. So, why did we want to list out those 56 practices?

Those 56 are an attempt to clear the path for slam dunk conservation practices. We did not narrow exemptions; those 56 are a subset to the existing exemptions for normal farming, ranching, and silviculture. That’s why we put them in a separate rule—so we could add to it as needed. No one should have to think twice about taking advantage of these conservation practices.

Some mistakenly think that this means additional federal standards with which to comply, but that’s wrong. Conservation practice standards are not federal regulatory standards.
They just provide a roadmap for producers to make sure they’re squeezing all they can out of their practice.

New exemptions are “self-implementing,” which means no one needs to notify or get approval from EPA or the Corps. There’s no need to double check with anyone at any time. I’m sure farmers agree that the best discussion on jurisdictional determinations is one that never needs to happen. We added 56 exemptions because we want to boost conservation without boosting bureaucracy.

Is the interpretive rule the best way to do that? Let’s figure that out together. I am about outcomes, not process. I’m optimistic—because I’ve had countless conversations like the ones yesterday and today with farmers and ranchers, local ag organizations, state ag directors, and people who represent the genuine interests of the ag community. We’ve already had workshops to fine tune concerns, and we’ll continue those conversations.

At the end of the day, I think we will all agree: we don’t have to sacrifice sensible environmental protections for a strong farm economy. Conservation leadership on ag lands has an incredible ripple effect; that’s why farmers and ranchers enjoy a close relationship with sportsmen and wildlife conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited. Healthy farmlands mean healthy habitats.

Farmers are more productive. Hunters and anglers enjoy pristine places, and fishing rod makers and boat builder
s enjoy more business. And, of course, people are healthier, because drinking water is cleaner. We all win. The U.S. outdoor industry relies on water and accounts for more than $640 billion in direct consumer spending a year and 6 million jobs. And protecting water bodies means protecting our pocketbooks. Healthy wetlands act as nature’s storm wall and water filter. And they don’t charge a dime of taxpayer money to do it. That’s why mayors and local officials have got our backs on this: they see the value in lowering costs and bettering lives.

If we can clear things up, we can clean things up. We can cut red tape, cut costs to taxpayers, and cut down on a lot of frustration. And we'll protect drinking water for 117 million people. We can protect people and property, without getting in the way of farmers and ranchers doing their jobs. We’ve done it before – from farm equipment emissions standards to safer pesticide use, we’ve put aside differences, put our trust in science, and forged partnerships in the name of progress.

Through it all, we’ve relied on the ingenuity, patience, and grit of America’s farmers and ranchers – from passing landmark laws to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe, to lending our agricultural smarts and skills abroad to improve people’s lives around the world.

Let’s commit to focus on the facts. I commit to you that if you raise an issue of concern, I will address it. Let’s protect our right to clean, usable water. Because that’s our promise to the American people. And delivering on that promise means a strong farm economy, and a strong America.

Thank you very much
.