Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks to the National Farmers Union, as Prepared


Thanks, Roger. Hi, everybody. It’s great to be here. I know Secretary Vilsack was here earlier this morning, and I want to echo his thanks to American farmers and ranchers. It’s because of you that we’re able to feed our families and pursue our goals.

My agency has a tough job to do. Seldom do we make big decisions that aren’t controversial to some extent – or legally challenged. We have been implementing laws like the Clean Water Act that were passed decades ago. And while we all still agree on the goals of protecting public health and the environment, we continue to actively debate what the laws and science tell us we must do to achieve those goals. That’s understandable, especially when the laws and the science keep evolving. We have responsibility to evolve with them.

So while we all might have hoped that a Clean Water Rule could be less contentious than most issues debated on Capitol Hill, and legislatures across the states—because we all want clean water—we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Anyone that thought it would be was a bit naive. Which is what brings me here today. I'm here to talk about a Clean Water Rule that's informed by that debate, not afraid of it.

First, I want to tell you up front that I wish we had done a better job of rolling out our Clean Water Rule – from calling it WOTUS instead of the Clean Water Rule, to not being more crystal clear out of the gate about what we were and were not proposing, to not talking to all of you and others before we put out the interpretive rule.

We should have put together a rule that didn't try to satisfy everybody, but got at tough questions. When we rolled the rule out, we knew there would be criticism out of the gate that would turn a cup-half-full statement into a cup-half-empty. It was just too easy for those who had every intention to criticize the rule no matter what it said, and to question not just the language in the proposed rule but EPA’s intentions when it came to so many critical issues – particularly related to agriculture. Even if we had a less-than-ideal start, that doesn't preclude us from getting this done right.

So starting week one, we had a lot of ground to make up. But we have worked hard and listened well – and we will get this rule done and done well this spring.

So first and foremost I am here to thank you—to thank all of you at NFU. You never had a knee-jerk reaction. From week one to today, you have been at the table willing to engage in productive conversations. I have to say that you have not been shy, or pushovers. You have challenged us, and that’s exactly why you’ve been so valuable to the process.

As we ramped up our outreach efforts—with more than 400 meetings across the country to talk about our Clean Water Rule, generating over a million comments—you helped us understand the real concerns of folks on the ground. You helped us think through options that would work for all of us who want and need clean water, including farmers and ranchers.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are working hard to finalize our Clean Water Rule this spring. And we have your comments and your input to thank for helping us separate the wheat from the chaff; for helping us focus on the concerns that are real and the solutions that are reasonable and workable. So NFU, I thank you for sticking with the process.

And second, I’m also here today to tell you that you won’t regret the time you’ve spent rolling up your sleeves. We have listened to you and everyone else that took the time to comment or attend meetings with us. You will see your input reflected in the final rule. Do I expect that everyone will applaud the Clean Water Rule when it is finalized? No, that would again be a bit naive. This rule is based on two things--one, what the Supreme Court told us, and two, what the science tells us. And the fact is, the science is much clearer today than when the Clean Water Act passed all those years ago.

Those considerations will help us do a better job articulating why this rule was needed and what it will mean—and not mean—in terms of changes from current practice. Folks will see that we carefully considered all input and we made changes based on the law and the science, as we know them today. That’s what an open, collaborative process is all about, and that’s how EPA does its business. Period. And farmers and ranchers will get the assurance they need to go about their business of producing the food, fuel and fiber we all depend on. Period.

The spirit of this rule boils down to three simple facts: First, 1 in 3 Americans get their drinking water from streams and wetlands that lack clear protection from pollution today. Second, our economy—from manufacturing and brewing to farming and ranching—can’t function without clean water. And third, the species we depend on and the places we love for recreation can’t survive without it.

This rule is about protecting clean water for all of us. So none of us can walk away from the task at hand, or shy away from the hard work, or take the criticism so personally that we don’t get the job done and done well.

We know it was right to withdraw the interpretive rule. We wrote it to support agriculture, but when farmers and ranchers themselves worried that the rule would be used to limit the way conservation practices were conducted and supported, it made sense to withdraw it.

We know the Supreme Court has given us clear direction on the law in two recent decisions, and they have told us we need to get moving to understand the science better—so we make jurisdictional decisions clearer and more predictable.

In short, EPA and the Corps are not doing this rule for fun—we are doing this rule because we have to. Continuing with the current implementation process is not acceptable. We are not adequately protecting waters that are critical to protect, and we have too many costly case-by-case decisions involving waters that the latest science tells us are not necessary to protect. And that’s a waste of time and money.

We need to do this rule to do our jobs right. We need to reach essential waters, and let go of waters that don't need protection. That’s why it’s important, and that is why we’re doing it. The science today is much clearer than it’s ever been. We know that while all waters are to some extent connected, some waters impact downstream water quality more than others. And we can do a much better job of defining which ones should and must be protected.

The rule isn’t final yet—we’re getting ready to send it over to the Office of Management and Budget for their review—so I can’t speak to every detail. But what I can do is broadly share some of the kinds of changes we’re considering as a result of the great input we got from NFU and others.

First, let me point out a few things this rule will not do. We’re not going to regulate puddles. We’re not extending the Clean Water Act to apply to land. And the rule will not cancel 4th of July fireworks displays. Remember those criticisms? We’ve come a long way.

We got serious feedback that our definition of tributaries was too vague and all-encompassing. And I get it—I can see how folks worried we might be painting tributaries with too broad a brush. So we’re considering ways to narrow that definition and make sure there are bright lines around exactly what we mean.

We heard concerns that the proposed rule would make erosional features in a farmer’s field subject to the Clean Water Act. Well, we never wanted that result and we can fix that—we listened.

On ditches—which ones are in and which ones are out—we’re also considering ways to make that definition clearer. We’re not interested in the vast majority of ditches—roadside ditches, irrigation ditches—those were never covered. Our proposal talked about “upland ditches,” and we got feedback that the word “upland” was confusing, so we’re considering other alternatives. We listened.

Let me be clear – because that’s what the final rule will be. The only ditches we’re interested in are the ones that are natural or constructed streams—the ones that could carry pollution downstream—which have to have the amount, duration and frequency of flow to look, act, and function like a tributary. They are the ones that we don’t want to pollute or destroy without thinking about how to mitigate impacts downstream. Remember – being jurisdictional doesn’t mean a thing unless you want to pollute or destroy a jurisdictional water.

I know folks also had concerns about the category we called “other waters” in our proposal. We heard we were too broad and undefined. Again, we don’t want to protect water that isn’t of significant concern to downstream waters. Again, we listened. We’re thinking through ways to be more specific about how we protect some of our nation’s regional treasures rather than what we do now, which is for the Army Corps to go through a long, costly, inconsistent process to decide whether waters are protected one by one. We teed ideas up in the rule itself—and we’re going to use our best judgement to set bright lines that folks can count on.

So we’re making a targeted effort to protect the waters that matter most. We’re thinking through ways to narrow the definitions in our proposal and make them clearer.

But one thing absolutely won’t change—and that’s the exclusions and exemptions for agriculture in the Clean Water Act. This rule doesn’t touch them.

And I want to remind folks of what that means: even in the limited number of cases where this rule will mean that a stream or wetland is clearly covered by the Clean Water Act, normal agricultural activities will continue with their current exemptions. So farmers and ranchers still won’t need an Army Corps permit to go about their business. It’s that simple, and we'll keep it that way.

Before I close, I want to say a few words about the Renewable Fuel Standard, because I know it’s at the top of a lot of folks’ minds—and rightly so. The truth is, the RFS is a complicated program, and we weren’t able to accomplish what we needed to last year. I know this has created a lot of uncertainty and confusion, and I know folks are frustrated, to say the least.

Implementing the RFS as Congress intended has turned out to be very challenging—and we’re figuring out how to get the program back on track not just for this year, but into the future. 2014 is over—so any standard we set can’t change renewable fuel production or use in that year. We will be mindful of that in setting the 2014 volumes, and be looking at actual volumes.

But we know folks have waited too long already. And so we don’t get knocked off track going forward, we know we have to move ahead and finalize the volumes for 2014 and 2015, and start the ball rolling on 2016. We are working hard to get that done sooner rather than later.

We know biofuels are a spark plug for rural economies. They’re also an important part of the President’s energy strategy, helping curb our dependence on foreign oil, cut carbon pollution, and drive innovation—and EPA is committed to catching up and getting the program back on track.

Again, thanks for the invitation, thanks for your continued engagement, and thanks for all you do every day to produce the food, fiber, and fuel Americans depend on. It's not always easy, but if we're willing to work together, and listen to each other, we can achieve goals that we all know are crucial. I appreciate NFU’s input on all the issues we work together on, and I’m grateful you’re always willing to have a conversation.

With that, I look forward to your questions.