RICHMOND -- The Vermont Farm Bureau opposes proposed federal rules that redefine which bodies of water are regulated under the Clean Water Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency has for years been testing the legal limits of its authority to regulate so-called "navigable" waters in the U.S. This year, the agency released a proposed rule that it says "clarifies" the limits of its jurisdiction.
But the state's largest trade association representing agricultural producers says this clarity appears to expand the agency's role and places added burdens on the farm community.
"They are proposing to go a lot further than ever before," said Bill Moore, a lobbyist for the Vermont Farm Bureau.
Echoing concerns raised by the National Farm Bureau Federation, Moore said the new rules would make it harder for farmers - especially small farmers less familiar with federal regulations - to manage their operations.
"If there is a farm ditch and you're considering clearing it out, you need to make sure that it qualifies for an exemption," he said. "It makes it impossible to make any on-the-ground judgment calls."
Environmental Protection Agency officials this week visited the state to gather feedback from the agriculture community on the proposed rule change that they say clarifies the definition of U.S. waters it can regulate. But, so far, the Vermont farming community is not sure what this will mean for their practices.
"Sometimes when things become clear they seem different," Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said Thursday. "There are sufficient gray areas in their explanation of the rule and that raises concern on my part."
Nonetheless, EPA officials say the new rule does not override existing permit exemptions for clearing out ditches and other everyday farming activities.
"The ditches are waters of the U.S., but a permit is not required to do farming activities in them or to clean them out," said Ellen Gilinsky, senior policy adviser for EPA. "That is not going to change."
She said that on top of the existing exemptions, there are 56 agriculture conservation practices that protect or improve water quality. These conservation activities, such as growing riparian buffers, would be exempt from the Clean Water Act's permitting requirements, she said.
Bill Sayre of the Vermont Forest Products Association has not read EPA's order but said the federal government should be careful not to overburden farmers with added costs that could force them to sell their land.
"The unintended consequence of a well-intentioned regulation is to push that land into alternative uses, like some form of development, where the environmental consequences will be more adverse than if it were left in working farms or forests," he said.
He said foresters comply with acceptable management practices designed to reduce the environmental impact of forestry. He said many foresters not only want to preserve the forest for environmental reasons -- its ability to sequester carbon dioxide and provide a habitat for wildlife -- but also for their livelihoods.
"Nobody cares more about the environment than the people who work the land," he said. "And the reason is that the environment in which the land resides is their resource base - the source of how they earn their income."
EPA hosted a roundtable at the University of Vermont Rubenstein School on Tuesday to discuss the proposed rule with the agricultural community. The media was not notified of the event.
"We want to talk to the farmers, we want to talk to the actual people on the ground," Gilinsky said, who was not responsible for organizing the event.
Of the more than two dozen groups invited last week to attend the event, only two farm groups received notice, said Moore, who was invited and did attend.
"We don't feel the farming community was represented," he said.
EPA is taking public comments on the draft rule until Oct. 20 and will release a final proposal in the late spring of 2015, officials said.