By Katie Demeria
Local farmers are supporting a national campaign launched by the American Farm Bureau and other groups that challenges a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that would expand the agency's regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act.
The "Waters of the United States" rule would clarify which waterways are included under the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA, it would extend the act to "most seasonal and rain-dependent streams" as well as "wetlands near rivers and streams."
But many farmers, such as Justin Pence, president of the Farm Bureau of Shenandoah County, say they believe the rule is an example of the agency overstepping its bounds.
"I have beef cows," Pence said. "There are several places on my farm where, when it's raining and wet, water may stand for a couple days. They could regulate that and say 'you have to fence that, your cattle cannot go in there.' I could lose 15 acres."
The rule would mean expanding coverage to navigable waters, according to Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of government relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau.
"This particular rule, if it is literally interpreted, would basically include anything that holds water, from the smallest swell or gully -- all it has to do is have water run through it. They believe they have the jurisdiction to create certain requirements associated with it," Stoneman said.
Some of those waters that would fall under regulation, he continued, may only see water when it rains hard, but farmers would still be restricted in how they use it.
Another issue, Stoneman added, exists in a fundamental difference regarding who has jurisdiction over water quality issues under the Clean Water Act: the EPA or the states and localities.
Pence argued that farmers are already good stewards of the environment -- they depend on the land, and try their best to keep it healthy.
"People look at farmers because they have a lot of land, but we're not wasting fertilizer," he said. "It's very expensive, so we are very cautious, using only what we need, and not overusing. We can't afford to."
By contrast, he continued, some homeowners with small yards purchase multiple bags of fertilizer that then end up washing away into local waterways in the rain.
"I think farmers are getting a lot of blame for things like that," he said.
"If the government comes in with these mandates, it will just take a lot of agricultural production land out of use," Pence added.
People move to Shenandoah County because it is so rural, and most farmers attempt to protect the open agricultural land in the area, Pence said.
Stoneman warned that putting strict guidelines on farmers could actually prevent them from continuing to work to help the environment.
"It might discourage conservation because you're raising the bar too high and you're pushing the envelope a little bit further than it needs to go," he said.
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or email@example.com