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Farmers were concerned that if WOTUS was implemented, any water on their farms, down to potholes or wet spots in fields, would be regulated by EPA. (Michelle Rook/Special to Agweek)

EPA officially withdraws WOTUS rule

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have filed an official proposal to withdraw the 2015 Waters of the U.S. Rule due to the concerns of rural America. EPA now begins a replacement rulemaking process re-evaluating the definition of WOTUS in the Clean Water Act and gathering input from stakeholders.

"When the Clean Water and Clean Air Act were passed in the 1970s, there was a belief that the states should be an active partner in making sure that we have clear objectives in air and water and working together to achieve those good outcomes," says Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the EPA. "But there was also this attitude that says we can grow jobs, grow our economy and protect our environment." Pruitt says that is the same approach they are using today and serves as the basis for pulling WOTUS.

The WOTUS Rule was highly controversial and largely opposed by the agricultural community. It would have greatly expanded the EPA's federal jurisdiction and scope of waterbodies that are subject to Clean Water Act requirements. It also targeted the Prairie Pothole Region.

Farm groups are hailing the announcement, saying the administration is injecting some much-needed common sense into the nation's environmental policies.

"The signal from the administration clearly is that they understand that the rule is not practical, it is not helpful and they need to not enforce it," says Daren Coppock, CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association.

Farmers are relieved as they feared that creeks, streams, ditches or even potholes on their farm would be subject to the rule, and they could face penalties if they were not in compliance.

Kevin Scott is a Valley Springs, S.D., farmer and serves on the American Soybean Association board.

"We thought it was an overreach by the federal government when it was proposed, and there were a lot of questions about how that would be implemented," he says. In a news release, the ASA stated this is a step towards regulatory certainty for soybean farmers.

Many lawmakers opposed WOTUS due to the government overreach, but also because of the added cost to the agricultural industry.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., says there are a slew of regulations implemented during the Obama administration that need to be repealed due to the burden they place on farmers and ranchers, and WOTUS was on the top of the list.

"In agriculture you get the wrong regulation that comes out of the federal government and it changes our way of life," she says. "Waters of the U.S. was that way."

The added cost to agriculture would have been passed down to consumers as well in the form of higher food prices, she says.

South Dakota Senator John Thune applauded the move by EPA and the Corps to initiate the formal process to rescind WOTUS.

"I'm glad EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his agency listened to the concerns of rural America and are taking steps to repeal this burdensome rule," Thune says. "WOTUS was just another example of Obama-era government overreach, which places unnecessary burdens on South Dakota's farmers and ranchers."

However, even with EPA rolling back WOTUS, the rule is not dead yet. Colin Woodall, vice president of Government Affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says farmers and ranchers need to be reminded there is work to do yet to because the question of who has jurisdiction still remains.

"We're going to have something that comes in to replace it in order to determine what is a navigable water," says Woodall. "We think under this administration, with this Administrator we're going to have a much more productive conversation in order to have a WOTUS replacement that actually works for landowners."

Woodall says NCBA will submit and solicit additional comments from their members to provide to the administration as the rulemaking process continues. Other farm groups are also hopeful they can work with Administrator Pruitt and his team at EPA to build a practical and workable plan to safeguard water quality.