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The Top Ten

Farm waterway through fields

Regulating waters on landowner properties, giving more space for chickens, and repairing your own tractor were all significant developments in laws impacting agriculture in 2023 and all will bear watching in 2024.

The National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas compiled a top 10 list for the most influential agricultural and environmental law issues from the past year. Some actions on that list remain legally unresolved in the new year.

Tops on the list was WOTUS (Waters of the United States). In 2015, President Barack Obama expanded the Clean Water Act of 1972 so that it would better define waterways. The expansion added streams and other smaller bodies of water, including those that are temporary following snowmelt. The idea was to protect those additional waterways from pollutants that could then travel into larger water supplies.

RELATED: The National Association of Wetland Managers traces the history of the Clean Water Act from 1972 throughout numerous administration policy changes and legal challenges. Read that here. 

Environmentalists praised the additional protections and lauded what they would mean for cleaner waterways.  “…streams flow into our great waterways. People don’t realize their importance,” Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger told the Texas Tribune in 2014.

However, two and a half years after he took office, President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced a rollback of those additional protections following backlash from some farmland owners and industry groups.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) was among the groups that opposed WOTUS. Here is what the organization said in 2019 after the EPA repealed WOTUS:

“The WOTUS regulation that took effect in 2015 was deeply unpopular among farm groups. Citing the many ambiguities and uncertainties of EPA’s then-proposed rule, NMPF urged EPA to rethink it in 2014, before it was adopted.” 

Following a series of legal challenges over the years, the EPA, and Army Corps of Engineers released a new rule to federally regulate waterways. Carolyn Berndt, the National League of Cities

Legislative Director for Sustainability on the Federal Advocacy team, wrote that “the new rule tries to find the middle ground compared to the Obama and Trump rules.” 

RELATED: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a final rule in 2023 that amends WOTUS to conform to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. Read that here. 

Finally, last year the Biden administration issued its final rule that changed WOTUS once again following a U.S. Supreme Court decision. But that doesn’t mean that legal decisions or subsequent presidential administrations won’t change it again.


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