As a third-generation rancher deeply involved in water resource issues, I feel I must push back against groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation making misleading statements against the new Clean Water Act ruling. Given the importance of clean, reliable water resources for agriculture and rural America, I want to make it clear that these lobbyists do not speak for me or countless other ranchers like me who require secure, clean water resources.
Clean and safe water is about the very last thing we take for granted. We need it for irrigating our crops, feeding our livestock, and for supporting our very way of life. In rural America, every day ranchers, farmers, sportsmen and rural communities count on healthy streams, rivers and wetlands. In fact, when my family moved West from Missouri in the early 1900s in a covered wagon, they chose Wyoming for their homestead based on its water resources.
The new clean water rule would bring safer drinking water to rural America, where about a third of our rivers, streams and wetlands are too polluted for drinking, or even swimming and fishing. This poses serious health concerns for millions of Americans. The clean water rule also promises to make life easier on the farm, by way of simpler and more relevant water policies, which have been marred in recent years by Supreme Court politics.
Although the Clean Water Act has been enormously successful in cleaning up half of the polluted waters in America since 1972 (some rivers were so polluted they were spontaneously catching on fire), the Supreme Court recently saw fit to limit the Act to just the bodies of water deemed “navigable.” That meant that the countless tributary, ephemeral and upland streams, lakes, and wetlands that feed directly into downstream bodies of water were no longer protected. To ranchers, farmers and rural communities that count on these bodies of water for drinking, fishing, swimming and irrigation, this ruling was arbitrary, confusing, and nearly impossible to follow.
Without the clarifications offered by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps, vast miles of U.S. waterways critical to the health and livelihoods of rural America have been vulnerable to pollution and contamination.
Based on style and substance, it's obvious that the folks behind the disingenuous, misleading clean water attacks are more practiced at talking with reporters and working the hallways of Congress than harvesting crops, mending fences or using our waterways. If reporters want to get the real scoop on what the new clean water ruling means for agriculture, they should get out into rural America and talk with the ranchers, farmers and local decision makers there.
I would really like to see Congress and the folks over at the USDA find a way to stand up to attacks against the clean water ruling – instead of allowing a few folks to push legislation that would undermine our clean water supplies. The EPA's announcement last week that it would expand its public comment period another three months should be welcome news to the broader agricultural community. It will allow us to get better organized and come together to demonstrate that fancy, inside-the-beltway lobbying groups don't speak for everyone. Some of us actually like clean water.
Eikenberry is a third-generation Wyoming rancher and former associate state director of the federal Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.