The Missouri farm where EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, conducted a farm tour and answered questions about the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule is rich in history and tradition.
The Boonslick Gateway Farm, owned by the Bill Heffernan family, is located on property once crossed by a westward trail known as "Boone's Lick Road" which connected the Cumberland Trail and the Santa Fe Trail and saw traffic from thousands of wagons headed for the Santa Fe Trail.
"My daughter, Lisa, was a history major and she did her senior thesis on the history of this area," he said. "We have the Cumberland Trail from Maryland which ended at St. Louis and the Santa Fe Trail which started at Franklin. So how did the westward bound travelers get from St. Louis to Franklin? She wrote her thesis on the answer to that question which brought up the trail that crossed our farm."
Heffernan, who bought the property in 1990, said he got a wake-up call on the history of the farm on the day of the sale.
"Someone told me that there was an older lady looking for me," he said. "It turned out she was a member of the Gardner family, the seller of the farm and she was 96 years old. Her family had farmed this land since 1901. She told me she wanted me to be aware of the history and said 'I am handing the stewardship of this land over to you.' I suddenly had a realization of what an important thing that was."
Today, the farm has a collection of wagons with iron-clad wheels, including one with a complete Conestoga style canvas topper, as well as a display of antique farm machinery including a 4020 John Deere tractor that McCarthy climbed aboard to check out.
"I think I could drive this thing," she quipped.
On Wednesday, when McCarthy was joined by conservation officials, EPA staff members, area farmers and a handful of reporters, the farm looked lush and the soybean stand surrounding the farm pond (which by the way IS a regulated body of water because it discharges overflows into a perennial stream) was extraordinary.
"This field is always really good, I think in part because this part of the property was once home to a small feedlot and there is a residual effect," Heffernan said. "But this year, with all the rain, the stand is just really amazing."
The Heffernan property provided a wealth of examples of issues addressed by the Clean Water Act and the interpretative rule proposed to clarify it. Miles of terraces were put in place to slow and control the flow of water and grass waterways at the foot of the terraces further slows water down in times of heavy rains, reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients that wash into the pond and eventually, the flowing stream it feeds.
An additional, contained pond (not a regulated body of water) collects drainage on the other side of the field.
"What we are looking at is an example of great stewardship of the land and what we want to encourage," McCarthy told the tour group. "These are all examples of normal farming practices that are completely and totally exempt from regulation. There is no need for talking to anyone, getting a permit or worrying about it."
Bill Heffernan, who farms with his son, daughter, son-in-law and grandson, said the pioneers who farmed his historic land before his time were excellent stewards who worked hard to leave the land in improved condition, generation after generation.
"In the early times, these hills washed and left deep gullies," Heffernan said. "We've been told that there are big pieces of farm equipment and even a Model-A buried out here someplace in the effort to fill in those gullies," he said. "Today, there aren't supposed to be any gullies out there, but I see some indication that the really heavy runoff this summer has done some cutting."
Those gullies, by the way, EPA senior water advisor Ken Kopecis was quick to say, are NOT regulated as waterways.
"Upland ditches are specifically exempt from jurisdiction," he said.
The whole question of regulating ditches has been the subject of misunderstanding, McCarthy said.
"The original rule does regulate ditches," McCarthy said. "However, the language about what ditches isn't very clear. We tried to clarify that language in the interpretive proposal and make it clear that we are talking about a very narrow definition of very specific ditches and in the process we called attention to ditches and created the impression that we were looking to regulate more ditches."
McCarthy said the issue is an example of why she wants more input from farmers and ranchers to make sure that the language is specific and clear and there is no ambiguity when the final rule comes out.
"I absolutely want to hear from farmers with real concerns and real questions," she said. "We want to get this right. We want to be clear and we want to be fair. I firmly believe that we are on the same side. We all want to protect our water quality and assure a safe supply of drinking water for everyone. But we also want our farmers to be able to do their jobs with as little interference as possible."
What she is frustrated with, the Administrator said, is the "silly stuff."
"There was one accusation that we want to regulate the rain," she said. "That we are moving to regulate mud puddles or water standing in the road ditches. That just gets in the way of a conversation about the real issues that we really do need to discuss."