Commentary: Utah farmers want clean water and clear rules

In this July 26, 2018, photo, Cherry Hill Farms employees watch as freshly harvested Montmorency cherries fall into a vat of water in the orchard in Santaquin, Utah. The crew will spend the next 3 weeks harvesting the cherry orchards of Rowley family farm, shaking trees and collecting some 230,000 pounds of cherries every 8-hour shift during the July cherry harvest. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

As a multigeneration farmer, I care deeply about the impact I have in my community of West Weber, but I also care about the impacts my farm has throughout the state. While I take great pride in the thousands of people my dairy feeds, I take just as much pride in how I care for the land and water. You’ll find other Utah farmers and ranchers feel the same way.

Water affects everything I do on my farm and affects so much of Utah agriculture — from fruit farmers in Utah County and dryland wheat farmers in San Juan County, to cattle and sheep ranchers in our mountain valleys and southern deserts, and everything in between. Farmers and ranchers have seen firsthand the impact water can have on our businesses and on the ability of growing food for Utahns. This is why our industry has been so focused on the Clean Water Act.

In early December 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency published for comment a new proposed clean water rule to replace the flawed 2015 “Waters of the U.S.” rule. The details will take some time to sort out — and there may be room for improvement on the latest proposal. But there’s no question that this is good news for farmers and ranchers who have faced a tangled web of confusing and unclear rules that have left us uncertain of whether we can even farm our own land.

The 2015 WOTUS rule was so broad and vague that a farmer or rancher would have no idea whether any ditch or pond on his or her farm was subject to federal regulation. Farmers in the West have been cited and fined for doing things as commonplace as plowing a field or switching crops, just because rainwater drains across the field. Farmers and ranchers aren’t the only ones who’ve struggled with this rule — homebuilders, small-business owners, towns, cities, counties and states have all waded through the mire to figure out which activities could open us to fines of more than $50,000 per day.

Federal regulations shouldn’t be a game of “gotcha.” Landowners should have fair warning of what activities are regulated and what landscape features are protected as “waters of the U.S.” A farmer should be able to look across his or her farm and be able to tell what is and isn’t a federally regulated waterbody. We shouldn’t have to hire a team of lawyers, environmental engineers and consultants to help us guess whether we can farm our land.

Farmers care about clean water. We work to preserve and protect the natural resources on our farms for our children, so they can pass it on to their children. We want to protect the land and water resources on our farms and ranches because it’s the right thing to do — but also because we want to leave something of inherent and lasting value for generations to come. It doesn’t end with us. We want to leave behind more than a business, we want to leave a legacy.

Farmers and ranchers in Utah support clear rules that will protect water quality in our nation’s waterways. We are encouraged that EPA has proposed a new water rule aimed at providing a clear and reasonable definition of “waters of the U.S.” and protecting our nation’s water resources for future generations.

I’m hopeful common sense will prevail, providing all of us with clean water and clear rules.

Ron Gibson | Utah Farm Bureau President

Ron Gibson is president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. He is also a sixth-generation dairy farmer from West Weber, Weber County.