GUEST BLOG POST By Dan Voorhis of the Wichita Eagle

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said Monday that she regretted how her agency handled the rollout of the controversial “Waters of the U.S.” rules that have many farm leaders complaining about federal infringement on private property.

She spoke at the National Farmers Union convention at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, following an address by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

She spent most of her 30-minute talk saying she wished her agency had done a better job of explaining how the EPA defined which bodies of water were regulated under the Clean Water Act.

However, she said, that doesn’t change the agency’s ultimate goal of issuing the final rule of what’s covered. She said that the rule is on its way to the Office of Management and Budget and will be issued this spring.

“I’m really concerned that we weren’t crystal clear out of the gate,” McCarthy said, “not just about what we intended to do but about what we intended not to do, because it left all kinds of room for people to wonder not just what the words said but what we were trying to accomplish.”

The rules are being rewritten by the EPA because of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The need for change is clear, McCarthy said, citing the reliance of Americans on clean water for not only human consumption but also for manufacturing and agriculture.

“That’s why I am here today,” she said.

On the biggest areas of controversy, she offered the following assurances.

▪ In clarifying the early criticism of the rules, she said they would not regulate puddles, land or Fourth of July fireworks.

▪ In response to worry that regulating “tributaries” could mean nearly anything, she said the agency has established clearer definitions.

▪ Erosional features are not covered, McCarthy said.

▪ On ditches: Roadside and irrigation ditches are not included. Ditches that are covered or natural or constructed streams that can carry pollution downstream and act like tributaries are.

▪ Other waters: Originally the term was too ill-defined, she said. Officials will use their best judgment on narrowing definitions.

The bottom line, she said, is that farming and ranching should be unaffected.

“The exclusions and exemptions for agriculture … this rule we will not touch,” she said.

She also talked about the Renewable Fuel Standard, which didn’t get approved as intended last year. The EPA is close to issuing final production volumes for biofuels in 2014 and 2015 and will start working on 2016 as soon as it can.

Farm productivity

Earlier in the morning, Vilsack updated conference attendees on a variety of USDA programs.

He praised the farmers in the room for their productivity. They are 12 times more productive than in 1950, he said.

That means Americans spend just 10 percent of their income on food versus 15 to 20 percent or more in other countries, which leaves more money for other items.

But there are long-term worries, he said, particularly in figuring out how the next generation will get its start in farming. The average farmer is in his 50s.

He said the USDA hasn’t been able to finesse the controversy around country of origin labeling, in which beef and pork in the supermarket is labeled by where it was produced. Congress passed the requirement, but neighboring countries have objected to it.

Vilsack said either the U.S. wins its appeal to the World Trade Organization, which has ruled against the labeling standards as an unfair trade policy, or Congress must change the law.

Beyond supporting traditional agriculture, which has been so successful that it has dramatically reduced the number of people in farming, the USDA is trying to develop more tools to support conservation and local agriculture, such as farmers markets, which Vilsack said help build local economies and quality of life.

“This isn’t just about farming. This isn’t just about agriculture,” he said. “This is about rural life and maintaining the value system alive and well in the rural communities.”

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or Follow him on Twitter: @danvoorhis.

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