Georgia farmers in limbo over new water rule

July 9, 2014 

As a matter of course and of principle, we generally support laws enacted to make our world, particularly our water and air, cleaner and safer for human needs.

But in the case of a new federal water rule the EPA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers introduced this spring, farmers and farm organizations in Georgia (and almost certainly in other states as well) are crying foul … and they might well have a point.

At issue is something called the Interpretive Rule (IR), and its intent was both to improve water quality and to clarify existing permit exemptions as well as create a few new ones. In other words, it was supposed to make environmental bureaucracy easier, rather than harder, for the ag industry to negotiate.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Farm Bureau say the effect of the rule has been, and threatens to be, exactly the opposite. Georgia Ag Commissioner Gary Black says the rule has created "a whirlwind of confusion" in the months since its adoption, and farmers are trying to figure it out and comply with its various requirements during the toughest time on the agricultural calendar. Zippy Duvall, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, says farmers are in danger of unwittingly violating discharge rules and facing more penalties.

In a June 19 letter to the Corps and the EPA, Agriculture Commissioner Black suggests that one of the problems with the Interpretive Rule right from the start was that it went into effect without the traditional period for comments on the part of those affected. That process, Black wrote, resulted in "a misunderstanding about the intent of the IR" and created "an unnecessary climate of mistrust."

Black notes that while the rule was intended to clarify exemptions under the Clean Water Act, what it has done instead is make "normal farming practices" subject to rules that can be changed arbitrarily, again without public notice. And as standards are modified, permit exemptions will be adjusted "as needed" (again, with no public comment), and farmers will face harsh and expensive penalties for violations they probably didn't know they were committing.

Agriculture remains Georgia's largest industry. Aside from being labor intensive (i.e. , a jobs creator), it also puts the food on our tables.

If Georgia's farm industry, for all its fundamental and profound value to our lives and our economy, is somehow wreaking havoc on our already threatened water supply, then that problem must be fixed.

But farmers -- and the rest of us, for that matter -- have the right and the need to know up front what will be expected. Changing the rules in the middle of the game does nobody any good.

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