Thursday, October 27, 2016

Can Plows Create Mountain Ranges?

by Levi Russell

According to the EPA, the Clean Water Act does not require a permit for normal agricultural practices including the following:
Normal farming, silviculture, and ranching practices. Those activities include plowing, seeding, cultivating, minor drainage, and harvesting for production of food, fiber, and forest products.

Upland soil and water conservation practices.

Agricultural stormwater discharges.

Return flows from irrigated agriculture.

Construction and maintenance of farm or stock ponds or irrigation ditches on dry land.

Maintenance of drainage ditches.

Construction or maintenance of farm, forest, and temporary mining roads.
That sounds pretty comprehensive to me, but the EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers has apparently decided to circumvent their own rule. A report released by the Majority Staff of the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works claims that
Landowners will not be able to rely on current statutory exemptions or the new regulatory exemptions because the agencies have narrowed the exemptions in practice and simply regulate under another name.  For example, if activity takes place on land that is wet: 
- plowing to shallow depths is not exempt when the Corps calls the soil between furrows “mini mountain ranges,” “uplands,” and “dry land;”
- discing is regulated even though it is a type of plowing;
- changing from one agricultural commodity constitutes a new use that eliminates the exemption; and 
- puddles, tire ruts, sheet flow, and standing water all can be renamed “disturbed wetlands” and regulated. 
This expansion of jurisdiction is apparently not what the EPA previously claimed it would be. If farmers are required to get permits to cultivate the soil, I'd bet on a couple of things:
1) the average farm size will grow dramatically as smaller farmers go out of business very quickly;
2) food prices will rise, or will fall more slowly than they otherwise would.

I doubt the average person looking at this situation would call those outcomes "good" but they're highly likely in my opinion. As Public Choice theory indicates, the EPA is not a residual claimant with regard to its policies, so its incentives are not as well-aligned as are the owner of the typical non-monopoly firm. Further, the EPA has plenty of incentive to increase the quantity of work for its employees and lawyers. This question remains: Will the farm lobby be able to keep their exemptions?

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