NC farmers dig in as EPA considers redefining 'waters of the United States'

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In the world of politics, there's the POTUS, the SCOTUS, and now, the WOTUS.

The latter, however, is not a singular entity but rather a term that generally encapsulates navigable waters across the United States. First introduced as part of the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress set out a series of regulations to protect the "waters of the United States."

"Its original goal was to make water swimmable and fishable," Andrew Branan, a professor of agriculture and environmental law at NC State University, told ABC11. "Think of the U.S. landscape and states, and it's basically a big drainage map and the extent to which federal jurisdiction may dictate what regular people and landowners can put into water. These rules can then see jurisdiction moving upstream and it moves downstream."

Historically, WOTUS rules were geared toward big factories, power plants, developments and even golf courses located near rivers, lakes and oceans. Decades later, however, the motivation for WOTUS evolved from ensuring safe commercial and recreational use of waterways to a more robust effort to protect the environment and combat climate change.

"Advocates throughout the country started to pay more attention to water degradation," Branan said. "We're obviously in a very different political environment than we were in the 1970s."

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Barack Obama unveiled a new Clean Water Rule, giving the Army Corps of Engineers and state government entities like the NCDEQ the ability to extend WOTUS to wetlands, streams and river basis on a case-by-case basis.

Under former President Donald Trump, the pendulum swung the other way, and the succeeding Biden administration is again can change where the WOTUS definition will flow. There have also been subsequent and simultaneous court battles over WOTUS's reach, including decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We are committed to establishing a durable definition of 'waters of the United States' based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from current and previous regulations ... so we can better protect our nation's waters, foster economic growth and support thriving communities,'' EPA Administrator Michael Regan said this past summer.

Regan, the former Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, talked about WOTUS in Raleigh earlier this week to introduce another clean water initiative as part of a broader effort to protect marginalized communities downstream affected by hurricanes and severe flooding.

"Everything we're doing at EPA is done through the lens of equity and justice. When we look at regulations and policies, it's through that lens that we take a step back and incorporate that into the work we do," he said.

The EPA will hold a series of public meetings on WOTUS soon, but already, North Carolina farmers are nervous about the potential impact WOTUS might have on their operations.

"For instance, if a ditch falls under that rule, then I can no longer maintain that ditch. I can't clear debris so it can drain and prevent flooding upstream. I have to have a whole other degree of regulatory oversight that slows down all of that work that needs to be done," Brandon Batten, a Johnston County farmer, told ABC11. "If I can't maintain my drainage and maintain that soil in a manner that will grow a crop, then I can't afford to plant it if I can't afford to maintain."

Batten, a third-generation farmer, said more regulations will further damage an industry already struggling to sustain itself and attract a younger workforce.

"I enjoy putting a seed in the ground and nurturing it and watching it grow, but I never envisioned I'd have to lobby for my interests in Washington and Raleigh," he said. "I would really hate to see a day where we depend on foreign countries for our food supply. American farmers pride themselves in being the providers of the most affordable safest and abundant food supply in the world."

As for concerns about the environment, Batten said farmers have a vested interest in clean water and clean air.

"I make my living from the land, and I need clean water to make a product I can sell in the marketplace. Sustainability is the nature of a multi-generational farm. You wouldn't be multi-generation if you're not sustainable," he said.
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