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EPA expects final version of 'Clean Water Rule' this spring

EPA administrator tells National Farmers Union that Waters of the U.S./Clean Water Rule concerns have been heard; ag exemptions will be included

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wasted no words regarding the Waters of the U.S. proposal and Renewable Fuel Standard volumes in an appearance before the National Farmers Union convention in Wichita, Kan., Monday morning.

McCarthy said she has a number of regrets about the roll-out of proposed changes and re-definitions with the Clean Water Act, specifically the Waters of the U.S. proposal.

She also said she wishes that the agency had simply called it the "Clean Water Rule" from the beginning.

"And I really, really, really wish we had talked to you before we put out the Interpretive Rule," she told the group. "I apologize for not doing this the right way in the beginning but I emphasize that in no way precludes us from getting this job done and getting it done right."

She said EPA has held more than 400 meetings with farm groups and taken more than a million comments and expects to put out a final Waters of the U.S. rule before summer.

In a meeting following her address to the NFU, McCarthy said she thinks that the rule can be finalized without another comment period and pledged that the language of the final rule will make it crystal clear what waters are jurisdictional, and more importantly, what waters aren't.

Related: EPA's McCarthy expects final Waters of the U.S. rule this spring

"Where we are today is not where we need to be in terms of protecting our water," she said. "We need to define waters in need of protection and farmers and ranchers will get what they need to be able to go about producing the food, fiber and fuel that we all need."

Waters of the U.S. interpretive rule
She said the decision to withdraw the Interpretive Rule was made when it became clear that it did not meet its intention, which was to make it clear that agriculture was protected.

"It didn't do that. It created more confusion and had a lot of people upset and worried that it would limit ag activities. It is no longer on the books. It is gone," she said.

She said EPA is preparing to send the rule to the Office of Management and Budget for evaluation so she couldn't share final details on Monday.

She said she could, however, guarantee that it won't regulate puddles, won't apply to land and won't cancel any July 4th fireworks shows.

It will define tributaries in clear language and make it plain most ditches are not jurisdictional.

Related: Top 5 Waters of the U.S. Headlines

"Only those natural or man-made ditches that serve as tributaries to carry pollution downstream into protected waterways are being considered," she said.

The vague "other waters" terminology will be replaced by wording that makes it clear that any waters that do not impact downstream conditions are not jurisdictional.

Exclusions and exemptions for normal agricultural practices in the Clean Water Act will remain in the Clean Water Rule, she said.

McCarthy thanked the NFU members for their participation in the rule-making process and said she intends to remain engaged with farmers and ranchers moving forward to ensure that their ability to farm without undue burdens is protected.

"Even in the limited number of cases where this rule will mean that a stream or wetland is clearly covered by the Clean Water Act, normal agricultural activities will continue with their current exemptions," she said. "Farmers and ranchers still won't need an Army Corps permit to go about their business. It's that simple and we'll keep it that way."

Renewable Fuel Standard
On another topic, she said that the EPA has a "before the end of spring" goal for releasing Renewable Fuel Standard volume requirements for 2014, 2015 and beyond.

"It is a complicated program and hard enough to administer without trying to guess every year how much production is possible, how much of the fuel produced will be from grain and how much will be advanced, biodiesel or cellulosic," she said. "Then, every year, we try to get it right and every year we get taken to court no matter what we do."

McCarthy said it is frustrating for the public, for farmers and ethanol producers and for the EPA to be so far behind on the standards.

Related: Biodiesel industry says RFS uncertainty a reason for lower 2014 production

"What has been hurt most by the uncertainty is investment in new and innovative processes," she said.

Her goal, she said, is to get a system in place that is fact-based and clear so that any court can clearly see that system does what it is supposed to do.

"We know that biofuels are a spark plug for rural economies. They're also an important part of the President's energy strategy, helping curb our dependence on foreign oil, cut carbon pollution and drive innovation," she said. "EPA is committed to catching up and getting the program back on track."

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