The U.S. EPA's proposed definition of waters of the U.S., released this spring, could cause cattlemen to turn away from voluntary conservation efforts, says Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.
Field last week testified before the House of Representatives Small Business Committee on the impacts of the proposed definition, which the NCBA says would expand jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and therefore regulation on ranchers by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.
If the proposal continues as written, Field says, cattle producers would face narrower exemptions for normal ranching practices, like installing fencing and grazing in riparian areas.
For example, Field says, the regulations would create a de facto best management practice list which would take currently voluntary conservation activities established by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and turning them into requirements.
"The concern that we have is that if producers don't have an NRCS practice implemented that is listed on that prescriptive list of 56, then they would be required to obtain a 404 permit," Field explained.
Field says the proposal could stifle participation in voluntary conservation, a point he reiterated in an interview with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"I don't think any rancher has ever thought or would ever assume that there would be a need for a permit for grazing cattle in a riparian area or for installing a fence," Field said. "The idea that we would have to have this level of regulation is dumbfounding, and it's going to do absolutely nothing to enhance water quality, rather than in my opinion, I think chill producers on voluntary incentive-based conservation and have a negative impact on water quality."
NCBA charges that NRCS could be turned into a regulatory agency at the hands of the definition change, as ranchers would be required to adhere to conservation practices that are currently only voluntary.
Field says the issue doesn't concern only ranchers. In his home state, he says, NRCS employees are concerned that they won't be able to maintain existing voluntary incentive-based relationships with landowners.
"As livestock producers, cattlemen and folks involved in agriculture it's essential that we maintain that voluntary compliance," Field said.
The rule also represents unique challenges in Washington state, Field says, because it allows EPA to interpret what they deem to be a navigable water – requiring more 404 permits.
"Once the drop falls out of the sky, EPA has every intention of regulating it," Field says.
The comment deadline for the rule is July 21, 2014.
For the whole interview with NCBA's Chase Adams, click here.