agriculture, Environment, Legislature

As EPA prepares to rescind the Waters of the US rule, state ag department has an extra $250K sitting around

A problem a lot of state agencies wish they had: Where to spend an extra $250,000? (Photo: Philip Taylor, Creative Commons)

H ouse lawmakers handed the state Department of Agriculture $250,000 to fight a legal battle that is all but moot. And now, unlike many cash-strapped agencies, the department has an extra quarter-million dollars that it needs to spend.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced late last week that he would rescind the Waters of the United States rule to less stringent, pre-2015 regulations. It is the first step in redefining what constitutes waterways that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Big ag opposed the rule because swine and cattle farms were subject to stricter environmental regulations if their runoff reached waterways regulated under WOTUS.

The House siphoned the money from a rural grants program and gave it to the state agriculture department to pay for its legal battle against the WOTUS rule. (The amount is less than the $1 million the Senate had proposed extracting from the Department of Environmental Quality for that purpose.) The funding survived negotiations in the conference committee and made it into the final budget, now law.

Budget language allows the Department of Agriculture to use the money to hire and pay for outside counsel — ironically, a legal prerogative lawmakers stripped from Gov. Cooper. But the budget doesn’t detail what happens to the money should the department choose not to pursue a lawsuit. For example, some department budgets revert unused money to the General Fund.

If Pruitt completes the rollback as expected, the state agriculture department will have to decide how to spend its windfall. “As of yet, no decision has been made about how the department will use the appropriation if WOTUS is rescinded,” Agriculture Department Public Affairs Director Brian Long said in an email.

The agriculture budget does list worthy programs in the department that undoubtedly could use more funding: Money is needed to buy out swine farms in the 100-year flood plain; currently, it can receive unused funds from the Forest Service for that purpose. Or the department could preserve more farmland. Or it could toss a few dollars to the beehive grant fund, which is open to donations. Or work in concert with DEQ to identify levels of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides in surface, ground and drinking water.

Even though Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has long opposed WOTUS, his department didn’t even request the money, according to Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. At a House ag committee meeting last month, she also noted that the Trump administration was rolling back WOTUS, making the appropriation obsolete.

For these reasons, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, called the the department funding “not a wise use of taxpayer money.”

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