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News & Media: Staff Columns

Water works

Monday, January 14, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: John Holevoet, director of government affairs
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The importance of water is not lost on many. If anything, those of us in agriculture are even more aware of the centrality of water to the work we do and the lives we live. As we enter a new year, it also appears that water is going to be at the center of a lot of the policy work that we do.  


In states where Edge has members, water concerns have been making headlines for years. In Minnesota, the state took the extraordinary step of amending the state’s constitution to create a Clean Water Fund. In Iowa, the largest city sued three drainage districts in northern Iowa over high nitrates (The lawsuit was eventually dismissed by a federal judge). In South Dakota, a proposed expansion of a cheese plant is being targeted by environmental activists, and their rallying cry is water quality in the Big Sioux River watershed. Finally, and most recently, the speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly just announced the formation of water quality taskforce in the wake of preliminary well testing in the southwestern part of the state.  


When dealing with the federal government, which is Edge’s focus, things have not been any less hectic. My last trip to Washington, D.C., was centered around a meeting at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the water permits that some larger dairy farms are required to have under federal law.  


Also, anyone who reads any agriculture publications is keenly aware of the tremendous amount of time, energy and money that has been spent fighting over how to define “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). The Obama administration’s attempt to “clarify” the definition resulted in a flurry of litigation.  


In December, the Trump administration published a proposed new rule that offered a much simpler and more pragmatic definition. This update was the result of a great deal of effort on the part of agricultural stakeholders. We wanted a rule that would both protect our water and provide clear guidelines for farmers to follow. Edge has lobbied on this issue and amplified the message through our membership in the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), which has been a major advocate for this change. While many in agriculture have hailed the new rule as a win, the reality is that it will likely end up being litigated just like the proposed Obama-era definition was.  


Farmers recognize the role they play in the quality of ground and surface water. They are engaged in these issues at the local, state and national levelsThese efforts are not just about advocacy. They are about making positive changes. Farmers are determined to be part of the broad, lasting solutions that are needed. The Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance, which Edge is a founder of and collaborator in, is one effort that seeks to channel the energy and efforts of farmers on the conservation front.  


These boots-on-the-ground efforts do not eliminate the need to be politically engaged on water quality issues. EPA’s Office of Water and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are both exploring market-based ideas to address nutrient losses to surface waters and resulting water quality problems. Nutrient trading presents a tremendous opportunity to improve water quality and provide farmers with new revenue opportunities to help pay for conservation improvements. To make this new trading system work well, legislation might be required at the federal and state levels 


These are just a few of the areas of focus for Edge in this legislative session as water quality takes regulatory center stage. If you have questions, please reach out to me at

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