The Missouri House Rules — Administrative Oversight committee on Monday passed a Clean Water Law amendment to the floor of the House that would exempt irrigation runoff and stormwater discharge in irrigated fields from permit requirements under the Clean Water Law unless the runoff has endangered public health or the environment.
The Missouri Clean Water Law gives the state the authority to protect, maintain and improve the quality of public water for domestic, agricultural, industrial, recreational, animal life and other legitimate beneficial uses. Under the law, the government must keep waste from being discharged into any waters of the state without first receiving the necessary treatment and meet the requirements of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.
The Department of Natural Resources must prevent, abate and control new or existing water pollution and work with other groups attempting to do the same.
But it is also state policy to attempt to meet these goals while maintaining maximum employment and industrial development in Missouri, and agriculture is the state’s core economic engine.
Under new Clean Water Act section 644.059, stormwater discharge and irrigation runoff will not be subject to DNR permit requirements and potential penalization unless the resulting water contamination has reached Missouri waters and rendered it “harmful, detrimental, or injurious to public health, safety, or welfare, to industrial or agricultural uses, or to wild animals, birds, fish, or other aquatic life.”
For example, if a hard rain were to wash fertilizer from a corn field into ditches that lead to an area waterway, the farmer who owns the field would be penalized only if the resulting water contamination was shown to harm the environment, wildlife or people.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, said the amendment is intended to bring clarity and certainty to regulations. He said long-held farming practices, such as pasturing herds of cattle or spreading manure fertilizer on row crop fields, have been unnecessarily called into question in certain cases, and some farmers’ operations have been put on hold while DNR processes their cases.
Wiemann stressed the new amendment would not limit DNR’s ability to take preventative action if the agency finds an eminent threat to public health or the environment or if standard responsible agricultural practices are not followed.
“We are really just trying to bring some certainty in that, kind of remove the subjectivity and try to provide some more certainty in the law, so that those in the agricultural industry — and we are not talking about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), we are talking about just regular farmers and ranchers — to allow them to know with some relative certainty that what they are doing (under) normal and standard practice would not later be brought back from the Department of Natural Resources and said (that it) is going to be illegal,” he said.
Opposition groups question whether the bill is a benefit more to the major agriculture industry than to the average farmer. Rural organizer Brian Smith, of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said he opposes the bill because he fears it will hinder DNR from preventing water pollution before problems occur in large-scale agricultural operations.
“The solution to this is not to take DNR out of the equation, in terms of being able to be proactive,” Smith said. “(The amendment) basically reduces a neighboring landowner who has a shared water source with someone who may have a spill into that shared water sources. Instead of being able to appeal to the DNR, they will basically be confined to a private legal action, (unless direct health or environmental harm can be determined).”
The proposed amendment comes as Cooper County grapples over the proposed Tipton East concentrated hog farrowing operation near Clarksburg, which has been opposed by many area residents who fear the manure spread on adjacent fields will wash into nearby streams and harm the water supply.