The Clean Water Restoration Act, which seeks to amend the federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify the jurisdiction of the government over waters of the U.S., would expand the Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisdiction of the nation’s waters.
Currently, says Shannon Mirus, staff attorney for the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas, waters covered by the Clean Water Act (CWA) are defined as ‘navigable.’
“The issue of what constitutes navigable waters has been litigated to no end,” she says, “including a Supreme Court case which ruled that the Corps of Engineers exceeded its authority under the act when it included under the act intrastate waters used by migratory birds. In another case, the court ruled that for wetlands to fall under CWA jurisdiction, they needed a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the U.S.”
But, says Mirus, who spoke at the annual conference of Mississippi Women in Agriculture at Mississippi State University, the Clean Water Restoration Act would change the definition to ‘waters of the United States,’ and would cover intrastate waters as well as interstate.
“This could include almost everything, from farm ponds, storm water retention basins, roadside ditches, desert washes, streets and gutters — even a puddle of rainwater. It’s a pretty scary proposition.”
Word on the street, Mirus says, is that “this could remain bottled up in committee, but it’s something we in agriculture need watch closely, and to make our voices heard.”
Animal welfare vs. animal cruelty is also “an extremely hot topic all over the country,” she says.
“Animal cruelty laws mostly address the treatment of dogs, cats, horses, and other domesticated animals, and largely exempt farm animals and animal husbandry practices.”
All states have animal cruelty laws that vary widely, but there has been a recent push to add felony charges to convictions under these laws.
“An attempt to make animal cruelty a first felony conviction was recently defeated in the Mississippi legislature. Arkansas recently passed a law with a felony provision (though not a first felony) for extreme animal cruelty.”
Animal welfare laws, Mirus notes, have been passed in six states — Florida, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, California, and Maine — and are largely targeted at agricultural production practices.
Most issues typically revolve around confinement operations, she says, with the most high profile situation involving California’s Proposition 2, passed by a 63.5 percent majority vote in 2008. It created a new statute that prohibits confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and freely extend their limbs.
The key portion of the statute becomes effective Jan. 1, 2015, and farming operations have until then to implement the new requirements.
Such statutes often include penalties of up to one year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines, Mirus says.
“Most of the pressure for these laws has been from the Humane Society of the U.S., which has made no bones about their goal of wanting to end animal agriculture.”
There have also been instances, she notes, of public backlash against companies that have supported these laws or made contributions to the Humane Society, and some companies have withdrawn support of the organization.
Another long-debated ag issue has been a national animal identification system, which was announced in 2004.
“USDA has just announced its abandonment of this effort,” Mirus says, after $142 million in taxpayer money has been spent on it.
“Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a number of ‘listening sessions’ after his appointment and determined that this wasn’t the best approach.”
Instead, she says, there will be a new ‘flexible framework for animal disease traceability,’ which will be administered at the state level, and applies only to animals in interstate commerce.
The lower-cost technology will be implemented through federal regulations and rulemaking processes.
The use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry production has received a lot of attention in the media, Mirus says, including a recent piece by Katie Couric on CBS News that focused on claims that use of these medicines in animals leads to resistance in humans and that antibiotic use is unregulated.
Legislation — Preserving Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) — has been introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, the only microbiologist in Congress, and has more than 100 co-sponsors.
“It would curtail the growth of resistant bacteria on family farms by amending the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to withdraw the use of seven different classes of antibiotics for non-therapeutic uses, and would require the FDA to deny any new animal antibiotic drugs unless the federal government is certain the drugs won’t contribute to antimicrobial resistance.
“This legislation would complicate the use of antibiotics and make animal/poultry production more expensive,” Mirus says. “There are those who contend the system is broken with regard to antibiotics in animal production, but in fact, it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.”
The PAMTA bill is currently stuck in committee.
2010 is being termed “a good year to die,” Mirus says, because the estate tax law expired at the end of 2009 and, with all the wrangling over health care, has been left on Congress’ back burner.
“But, the repeal is for only one year and if nothing is done, unfavorable tax rates will return in 2011. It is expected, however, that Congress will either extend the previous law, which has a $3.5 million exemption, at least through 2010.
“A lot of people are putting off estate planning to see what is going to happen. More than ever, a good estate attorney is worth the money.”
Thirteen states now have legislation in place to define agritourism, which has offered expanded revenue opportunities for many farmers, Mirus says.
“Ten states have promotional programs to spread the word about agritourism opportunities, and six have tax incentives aimed at fostering agritourism. Some have created marketing authorities and some offer funding assistance.”
A significant concern for those wanting to get into agritourism is liability, she notes. “Many of the people who would visit farms have never been around tractors and other equipment, or farm animals, and don’t realize the dangers they can pose.”
Seven states — Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kansas — have passed legislation to provide operators some measure of protection from ‘inherent risks’ associated with their agritourism venture. Legislation has been considered by the Mississippi legislature, but failed.
“None of these statutes have been tested yet in courts, so we don’t really know how they will play out. Even with a statute in place, however, you shouldn’t think it absolves you of carrying liability insurance.”
Now is “a great time for women in agriculture,” Mirus says, “and women are getting more recognition for their contributions to the success of America’s family farms.
The center’s Web site (nationalaglawcenter.org) offers a wide variety of information to farmers or anyone interested in agriculture issues, she notes. There are 45 different topic categories, along with a link to the food and law policy blog, which is updated daily, Twitter, and an e-newsletter.