Pres. Trump points to farmers as winners in proposed rollback of federal wetlands protections

NEW ORLEANS — President Donald Trump pointed to farmers Monday as winners from the administration's proposed rollback of federal protections for wetlands and waterways across the country, describing farmers crying in gratitude when he ordered the change.

But under longstanding federal law and rules, farmers and farmland already are exempt from most of the regulatory hurdles on behalf of wetlands that the Trump administration is targeting. Because of that, environmental groups long have argued that builders, oil and gas drillers and other industry owners would be the big winners if the government adopts the pending rollback, making it easier to fill in bogs, creeks and streams for plowing, drilling, mining or building.

Government numbers released last month support that argument.

Real estate developers and those in other business sectors take out substantially more permits than farmers for projects impinging on wetlands, creeks, and streams, and who stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief from the Trump administration's rollback of wetlands protections.

Speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation in New Orleans, President Trump told farmers the federal protections for waterways and wetlands were "one of the most ridiculous" regulations.

"It was a total kill on you and other businesses," President Trump said. He claimed farmers and builders alike wept in gratitude when he signed an executive order in 2017, as one of first official acts of his presidency, directing a rewrite of the wetlands protections.

"We're going to keep federal regulators out of your stock tanks, your drainage ditches, your puddles and your ponds," President Trump told the cheering farmers Monday.

Opponents contend President Trump and his administration put farmers front and center as beneficiaries of the proposed rollback because of the strong regard Americans historically hold for farming.

"The administration understands good optics in surrounding themselves with farmers," in proposing the rollback, said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Surrounding themselves with folks that would represent the industries that actually benefit would not be as good an optic."

Backers "have been really happy to have farmers be the face of it," said Kenneth Kopocis, the Environmental Protection Agency's deputy assistant administrator for water under the Obama administration. But the building industry, oil and gas and others with lower profiles in the campaign "are going to be some of the big beneficiaries."

The more than 300-page financial analysis the administration released last month when it formally proposed the rollback appears to starkly quantify that disparity. Of 248,688 federal permits issued from 2011 to 2015 for work that would deposit dirt or other fill into protected wetlands, streams and shorelines, the federal government on average required home builders and other developers to do some kind of mitigation — pay to restore a wetland elsewhere, generally — an average of 990 times a year, nationwide, according to the government's analysis.

In all, other industries and agriculture obtained an average of 3,163 such wetlands permits with some kind of extra payment or other mitigation strings attached each year.

Farmers represented just eight of those on average in a year, according to the administration's figures.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the wetlands protections with the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Association of Home Builders confirmed Friday that developers and other industries, not farmers, have felt the biggest impact from the federal wetlands protections and would get most of the financial breaks under the rollback.

"The residential construction industry does pull more wetlands permits than farmers do," Liz Thompson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders, said in an email.

The Trump administration's pending rollback of wetlands protections "could be a benefit to builders who will see some relief in terms of cost and time. That said, builders will still be regulated and will still be the industry that pulls the largest number of 404 permits which are very costly," Thompson wrote, referring to the section of the Clean Water Act dealing with the regulatory enforcement and permits.

The administration's proposal greatly narrows what kind of wetlands and streams fall under federal protection. If it is formally adopts it after a public comment period, it would change how the federal government enforces the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act and scale back a 2015 Obama administration rule on what waterways are protected. Environmental groups say millions of miles of streams and wetlands would lose protection.

President Trump signed an order in February 2017 directing the rollback. With farmers as well as homebuilders by his side, President Trump called the waterways protections then in force a "massive power grab" targeting "nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer's land."

The farm bloc has been one of the most loyal to President Trump, despite farmers' complaints that the administration has favored oil and gas producers over corn ethanol farmers, and their worries over a trade war with China.

Acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler surrounded himself with farm bureau representatives and farm-state Congress members in signing the rollback proposal last month.

In Tennessee, Wheeler, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and farm industry leaders from Washington stood in front of tractors and U.S. flags last month to urge farmers to campaign for the rollback.

"The EPA has done its job, now all of us in this room have to help to get this over the finish line," Zippy Duvall, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the Tennessee farm crowd then.

Farmers who support the rollback call the federal protections of wetlands and creeks a burden, and insist farmers know best how to protect their property.

Environmental groups, public-health organizations and others say it's impossible to keep the country's downstream lakes, rivers and water supplies clean unless upstream waters are also regulated federally. The targeted regulations also protect wildlife and their habitats.

The Clean Water Act permits deal with work that would dump dirt or fill into a wetland or waterway. Breaks for farmers long have been written into the law, so that a farmer doesn't need permits for ordinary ongoing farming that, for instance, sends some soil running off into a wetland.

The American Farm Bureau Federation — one of the most active promoters of the scaling back of the Clean Water Act's reach — says the 2015 Obama version of the rule could force farmers to pursue costly wetlands permits and mitigation for routine plowing and other farm work.

"It's just really a nightmare for farmers to have to navigate," said Don Parrish, the senior director of regulatory relations at the agriculture trade group. "It can cost them the use of the land, generally they have to stop using their land" if they run afoul of it.

"If you could see me, I'd be laughing" at that claim, Kopocis, the lead Obama water official behind the 2015 rule, said by phone Sunday. "Every single exemption or exclusion that agriculture had" was preserved in the Obama administration's 2015 work on the wetlands rule, he said.

In an email, Cindy Barger, an Army Corps of Engineers official involved in the proposed regulatory change, confirmed that the rules targeted by the Trump administration had kept the regulatory relief for farmers.

Compared to other industries, as wetlands protections currently stand, "the agricultural industry has less economic exposure because of the permit exemptions," Barger said. The gain for farmers would be the Trump administration's attempt to streamline definition of protected wetlands, meaning farmers wouldn't have to consult experts to know if an area is protected, she said.