Baldwin County farmer Mark Kaiser said a new federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule redefining the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act could harm farmers in agriculture-heavy Alabama and other states nationwide.

The “Waters of the U.S.” rule was implemented Aug. 28 and has been a source of controversy, with at least 29 states filing suit to block it. That day, a federal judge in North Dakota issued an injunction to stop the rule’s implementation in 13 states.

But Alabama is still bound to the rule as it is part of a separate, eight-state lawsuit still pending, according to Seth Morrow, communications director for U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne. Byrne’s two-day “Ag Matters” tour stopped at Kaiser’s farm near Elsanor.

Critics of the rule — which defines which streams, rivers, lakes and marshes can be regulated by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — say it will place an unnecessary burden on farmers, allowing bureaucrats to penalize and harass landowners who work near ponds without federal authority.

President Barack Obama favors the rule, saying it will provide clarity for business owners and industry about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act.

The rule protects tributaries showing physical signs of running water even if they don’t flow year round. Locally, the fear is the rule could be used against a farmer who blocks a stream to create a pond for livestock. It also allows the EPA to regulate any body of water within 1,500 feet of another body of water already covered by the rule. Meanwhile, a copy of the rule found on the EPA website includes exceptions for “normal farming, ranching, and silviculture activities.”

Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said some in the environmentalist community think the rule does not go far enough, but she believes it is easier to follow than the previous regulation.

“This rule allows us to be confident that we have clean water to swim in, to fish in and to play in,” Callaway said, noting the rule should not affect coastal Alabama as much as other areas because of its proximity to well-defined bodies of water. “This rule enhances what we already have in place.”

Morrow said Byrne’s office has received phone calls and letters from a handful of county commissioners concerned they will have to apply for EPA permits to perform standard drainage and sewer work, or face hefty federal fines.

“The Congressman believes this rule is too confusing, too complicated and burdensome for residents in his district,” Morrow said this week.

Kaiser’s family has farmed in Baldwin County since the early 1900s, when his great-grandfather worked a farm in Elberta. His grandfather passed the tradition to his father, and he hopes to be able to pass the family business to his children one day.

To Kaiser, the new rule implies farmers are unable or unwilling to take care of the environment on their own farms, something he said is not true.

“We are already trying to do everything we possibly can to safeguard the environment now, and if they put more regulations on us I don’t know how exactly it will help,” Kaiser said. “There is a finite amount of money we can spend doing what we are doing. We are trying to do the best we can right now.”

Kaiser said his family lives, works and plays on the sprawling property where the main crops are soybeans, peanuts and wheat.

“We live here, we grew up here,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a better steward of the environment than the farmer who is actually on the land every day.”

Outside of burdensome federal regulations, Kaiser said Baldwin County farmers have local concerns to deal with every day, like moving large farm equipment up and down the county’s congested roads, finding dependable and capable workers, and dealing with the loss of farmable land to growing development.

The decline of family farms means fewer children grow up learning how to properly use farm equipment, leading to fewer capable workers, Kaiser said. Many of Kaiser Farm’s workers are retired or former farm owners who had to downsize before finding labor to make ends meet.

“There are just less farms because farming is difficult and over the years farms have had to grow to stay in business,” he said. “Many of them, if they didn’t grow they went out of business.”

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, as well as representatives from the Alabama Farmers Federation, joined Byrne on his tour of farms in the Congressman’s district.    

Byrne said the rule could be devastating in District 1, home to more than 100,000 agriculture jobs.

“This rule will affect people all over the country, not just our farmers,” Byrne said. “But the impact it could have on agriculture is huge.”

According to McMillan, the EPA is allowing biologists to write rules intended for farmers and foresters to follow, saying small-business owners and farmers already face too many federal regulations.

“One big issue with the ‘Waters of the U.S.’ rule is that it is ‘one size fits all’, treating our waters the same as waters on the other side of the country,” McMillan said. “Our waters are different than the waters in Colorado or Maine.”

Callaway said the new rule is more well defined than previous regulations, noting that permit holders used to “spend a ton of money and time” trying to figure out how the rules applied to them.

“What we had before was much harder to understand,” she said.