- - Saturday, February 15, 2020

My family has been farming in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for more than 135 years. Through five generations, we’ve been a family of ranchers raising beef cattle and growing crops for cattle feed in the Rio Grande basin. My wife and I even have a sixth generation on the way, with our four young children growing up rooted in the culture and history of our family’s agricultural way of life here in our hometown of La Jara

As a family, we’ve always stayed close to the land our livelihood depends on. We care for that land and we know how to steward it. We know that only what’s best for the land we love will be what’s best for our family farm.  

And so, like many other local farmers I know, I always implement tried and true local practices to protect and sustain the quality of the Colorado water that my crops and cattle need. 

But of course, for us to do what we know is best for the land, we need clarity about the rules and who’s in charge.

That’s why I applaud the Trump administration’s new Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which was announced last month. This updated Waters of the U.S (WOTUS) water management rule puts the oversight of land that is sometimes wet back into the hands of state and local governments.

Back in 2015, federal overreach by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency threatened to impair my family’s longstanding practices of care and stewardship for Colorado’s water resources. Because of that rule, the EPA defined WOTUS in a way that not only included navigable waterways like rivers and lakes, but also small water features and dry land that is sometimes wet. 

In theory, the 2015 WOTUS rule was supposed to grant greater environmental protection to certain bodies of water, like streams, ponds and wetlands. In practice, local farmers like me just wound up burdened with an unwieldly and unclear set of federal regulations that turned even the most routine farming practice into an uncertain process. 

Specifically, the 2015 WOTUS rule simply didn’t fit with the way we do things in Colorado. 

In Colorado, we have a system of water use law known as the prior appropriations doctrine. Our water rights date back to the early 1880s. This longstanding tradition means we divert water into canals and ditches for 60-90 days at a time during the growing season. Put another way, they are bone dry three-quarters of the year. Without them, we couldn’t raise our crops at all. Under the 2015 WOTUS rule, there was significant confusion about whether these purely seasonal water channels became subject to complicated EPA regulations. Confronted with these regulations, our way of doing things was quickly becoming a logistical nightmare. 

So when the Trump administration’s EPA and Army Corps of Engineers announced a repeal of the WOTUS rule last September, you can bet we all breathed a sigh of relief. 

Yet, in the months leading up to and coming after the repeal, we still had to wait for a new rule. We hoped the new rule would strike the right balance between federal oversight and state or local autonomy. 

I’m happy to say that the Navigable Waters Protection Rule does strike that balance. 

The new, revised rule is clear in a way that prior WOTUS rules were not. Now we know where we stand. State and federal jurisdictions are clearly defined. State and local governments have the authority to manage and implement local rules they most need for regulating transient and seasonal bodies of water.

In our family, we’ve always known the environmental benefits that come from well-crafted, well-implemented regulation. The new Navigable Waters Protection Rule from the EPA and Army Corps should be viewed as a win for America’s farmers and ranchers, as well as a win for the environment, because it ensures clean water while providing much-needed clarity.

• James Henderson raises beef cattle and grows alfalfa, grass, oats, barley, wheat, field peas and corn for feed on 711 Ranch in La Jara, Colorado. He previously served as president of his county Farm Bureau and participated in Colorado Farm Bureau’s first Elite Leadership Academy class. 

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