Rural ranchers across the U.S. are bracing for a comeback of Environmental Protection Agency regulations under President-elect Biden that were in place during the Obama-Biden administration. The farming industry says one regulation in particular – the Clean Water Act – would be a nightmare for the industry and potentially pockets of the economy.
“The 2015 Obama rule has been litigated all across the country. Multiple courts have found it to be illegal and the fact is it’s extremely confusing. The 2015 rule is basically a hot mess. It's an explosion of regulation that no one could understand," said Stefanie Smallhouse, state president of the Arizona Farm Bureau.
The Clean Water Act along with Waters of the U.S. were never were fully implemented under the Obama administration before President Trump rolled it back. The rules were intended to make sure runoff from farms did not make its way into waterways and pollute the drinking water supply. But it sparked controversy industry wide – opponents argue it gave the federal government too much power and put even small puddles on the EPA’s watchlist for pollutants.
“When an administration comes in and says, 'We're going to clean up the water, but we're going to put these onerous regulations in and now we're going to regulate the puddle that's in the middle of the field,' as opposed to actually putting good buffers in, incentivizing folks to do good practices, it’s a scary thought," said Mike Webert, owner of Locust Hill Farm, a cattle farm in Middleburg, Va.
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Other farmers are on board with the government regulations that help protect the environment and promote water safety but say they need the government to continue to cough up the cash to help them do it. Farmers are required to install fencing to cut off livestock like cows from reaching waterways, like creeks, and potentially polluting it. That forces farms to build wells to give cows a separate source of drinking water.
“There's not a whole lot of profit left in farming and the little bit there is, as farmers, we need to direct those funds to cow health, cow comfort, employee safety ... updating equipment that gets used every day," said Ben Smith of Cool Lawn farm in Bealeton, Va. "All the profit that we do make needs to go back to the cows and to our employees.”
Right now, the government can pay up to 75% of the cost and Smith says they need every penny.
Smith said, “You know, without cost-share and funding of these projects, it would definitely be a burden. Unless we see an immediate return on investment on the farm, we're probably not going to do it.”
It’s not just a flashback to Obama-era regulations that the industry is worried about but what could come under a first-time Climate Czar in the White House.
“The administration can create all the climate czars and sustainability positions that they want. When farmers and ranchers are on the farm, in the ranch, we're already practicing consciousness of what's happening with the environment," said Smallhouse. "It's not as if this is a new concept on the farm or the ranch. A lot of people act like it is. It's something that we've been doing for decades."
Others worry about a lack of firsthand farming experience in Biden’s climate team in Washington, D.C., would create rules that don’t make sense.
“The biggest thing that I think is myself and some of my colleagues in agriculture are bracing for is you have more and more people that have been removed from agriculture and don't understand exactly what we do," said Webert. "When people can walk down an aisle and all they see is beef that's packaged, not steers that are actually eating that are going to then become that beef they get disconnected and they don't understand."