Carper: Farmers, drinking water at risk in rollback

The U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW) and the EPW Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water & Wildlife on June 12 held a joint hearing, “A Review of Waters of the U.S. Regulations: Their Impact on States and the American People.” EPW Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) took the opportunity to address concerns about the rollback of environmental regulations and its impact on drinking water and agriculture.

“As I have said before in this committee, there is perhaps no other sector of the economy more intrinsically tied to environmental quality than the agricultural sector. After all, our farmers need clean water and healthy soil to produce high-quality crops,” Carper said.

“That is something I often hear when I am in Sussex County, which is Delaware’s southernmost county and home to some of the world’s finest farmers and producers. If you drive through Sussex County, you will see sprawling fields and farms growing soybeans, poultry, corn and grains. If you stop at a farm stand, chances are you will meet someone whose family has farmed for generations.

“Back home in Delaware, we’ve proven time and again that we can have commonsense protections for our environment without hampering our agricultural sector’s ability to grow and prosper,” he noted.

“Unfortunately, however, our farmers are facing real adversity right now. Just this week, my staff heard from someone whose family has been farming for more than a century. Over the years, they have figured out how to budget and adjust their growing seasons around unexpected droughts or floods or freezing temperatures — but they could never foresee the impacts of this president’s trade wars.

“Meanwhile, in the Midwest, farmers are still reeling from catastrophic floods — and this administration’s surrender on climate change ensures that more devastating floods, worsening droughts and fires the size of states will continue to keep farmers and crops off their fields. Add to the erratic tariffs and climate denial this administration’s confusing renewable fuels gamesmanship, which is clearly intended to please everyone and, sadly, satisfies no one.

“This is just no way to do business,” Carper said. “So, I ask a simple question: Why should anyone trust that the changes the Trump Administration proposes to the definition of waters of the United States are going to deliver for our agricultural producers? The simple answer is we can’t.

“Even more important, I think, is that despite the incredible hardships besetting our farmers today, they do not really need the false promise of this administration’s new WOTUS definition,” he continued. “Since the days of Republican President Richard Nixon, Congress and EPA have ensured that farmers engaged in normal farming activities are not covered or affected by Clean Water Act obligations. In fact, the economic analysis of the WOTUS rule conducted by this administration’s EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that, on average, only eight farmers per year needed 404 permits requiring mitigation. That’s right — eight!

“Developers, on the other hand, required about 990 permits per year,” Carper noted. “If you look at the total of 390,000 permits these agencies included in their economic analysis, you will find that less than 1 percent of permits were issued for agriculture. With that, I would ask all in this room to consider who truly benefits from the Trump proposal.

“Instead of the promised clarity and simplicity, I’m afraid that the faulty and incomplete definitions in the president’s proposal will end up demanding a great deal of time and money — and a boatload of consultants — to figure out. At the same time, instead of reducing costs and cumbersome hurdles for our constituents, with this rollback, the only things we are sure to have are degraded wetlands and polluted headwaters.

“The ephemeral and intermittent streams of our headwaters may be small enough to hop across, but, under this proposal, they will deliver more pollution, higher costs and economic burden — especially to poor and disadvantaged communities downstream.

“These communities will see drinking water bills rise as their utilities have more pollution to scrub. These are neither hypothetical nor hysterical predictions,” Carper emphasized. “The American Public Works Association in its comments on the proposed Trump rule said, and I quote: ‘The new proposed rule would likely impose higher costs on local agencies and water providers for those bodies to deliver those services. As a result, those bodies would be faced with a choice between raising rates and potentially pricing members of the community out of those services or risking noncompliance by trying to stretch already thin budgets for water and wastewater treatment.’ End of quote.

“Meanwhile, many fishermen and hunters will see wetland habitats destroyed, along with major disruptions to the outdoor recreation industry. And what about farmers downstream? Under the Trump proposal, in those waters no longer defined as waters of the U.S., industries would be free to discharge pollutants as they see fit, and land developers will be able to dredge and fill upstream wetlands. I wonder how farmers in Delaware would feel about having to install water treatment facilities to ensure they have the clean water they need to raise healthy crops and livestock.

“I cannot understand why this Administration would propose a definition for waters of the U.S. that provides less clarity, dirtier water, disrupted wetlands and higher costs to everyone represented in this room and far beyond. My dad used to say to my sister and me when we were growing up and pulled one bone-headed stunt after another, ‘Just use some common sense.’ If he were sitting here with us today, he’d probably say the same thing, and he’d be right.”