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WCGA hosts EPA, DOI officials at roundtable discussion on Janesville farm

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Doug Rebout talks about the history of his farm and how automation helps him do the work.

Several figures in agriculture and environmental conservation turned out Friday for a roundtable discussion hosted by the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association in Janesville, including several state and federal representatives and members of the Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of the Interior.

The roundtable, held at Roger Rebout & Sons farm in Janesville, discussed water quality issues faced by Wisconsin farmers. The panelists largely agreed that the relationship between Wisconsin farmers and regulatory agencies like the EPA needs fixing among many disagreements between them on how farmers should accomplish land and water conservation.

Doug Rebout owns the farm, which is a former dairy that now grows soybeans and corn on 4,000 acres and also raises heifers for neighboring dairies. Doug's father Roger established the farm as a dairy in 1963.

Panel speakers included David Ross, assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Water; Tim Petty, assistant secretary of water and science for the DOI; Doug Rebout, owner and corn and soybean farmer; Kurt Thiede, regional administrator for Region 5 of the EPA; and US Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis.

David Ross said the relationship between the EPA and Wisconsin farmers must be repaired.

Ross said respect for natural resources is important to the economy with regard to farming, emphasizing that ag is the "bread and butter" of Wisconsin. He said the EPA is looking for ways to both invest money in farmland conservation, but also save money so it can be better spent elsewhere.

"Our job is to break down the barriers across our federal agencies to put the customers – you all – first. It's your money and we're responsible for it. Taxpayer money goes to the Treasury, Congress appropriates our program, we're supposed to wheel it back out to you and deliver services that you need," Ross said. "And we don't, quite frankly, do it very well on the federal level. So, we've been working informally to try to break down those barriers."

Ross, Petty, Thiede and Steil made commitments to repair the relationship between various government agencies and farmers because a better dialogue is needed for a better result.

"As the (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler often says, the farmer is the first conservationist. I've heard a similar story on every one of our visits, passing it down to the next generation, wanting to do the right thing by the land, because it's your land," Thiede said. "Around the country ... that dialogue is taking place, it's opening up the conversation, because I think we can do and have far better outcomes by working together."

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"I think that one of the focuses here is how do we work together at the local, state and federal level to make sure that our farmers here in Wisconsin in Rock County and across the state can have a family farm for generations to come," Steil said. "Whether or not it's trade at the federal level, it's environmental either at the EPA or the (Department of Natural Resources), it's working hand in glove between local, state and federal."

Tim Petty said more government agencies should work together with farmers to get the bigger picture.

Petty also spoke on repairing the farmer-EPA relationship, adding that state and federal agencies should be collaborating more so that additional voices can be heard and the big picture can be put together. He said Wisconsin is a key area for these efforts because of the abundance of water studies in the state, like aquifer projects and geological surveys, which are important for gathering data to make progress in water conservation efforts.

"One of our premier water centers is actually in Wisconsin at La Crosse, and so there's a lot of work and research that has taken place in our La Crosse office," Petty said. "Then we also have our geological surveys tied in to the universities, our University of Wisconsin-Madison facility. Usually every state has a water center that taps directly into the states. We work very closely with our state geologists."

Petty announced the creation of the National Water Dashboard, an app for farmers, fishermen, natural resource agencies and other groups that will allow them to access data for stream gauges, including current stream flow and flow history. The tool will help raise awareness of flood warnings and help study weather patterns, whether for flood or drought seasons. It will also connect users with various government agencies who are studying the data as it comes in.

"You can download and highlight any of your local strain gauges in the area and actually have current stream flow," Petty said. "So when you're in a drought, you know what's going on, (and) when you're in a flood, you know what's going on. We're highlighting Wisconsin and all the gauges that go back decades on that work in history so that there's resources there for you.

The EPA and other federal agencies should take a step back and listen to individuals, Ross added, because he claimed many federal government workers are telling farmers what to do without considering the need for an individual case study. He said $1 billion in new funding for SWIFIA, the EPA's state infrastructure financing authority created in 2018, will help solve those problems and help water quality work become more localized as funds are sent to the states.

"It is very, very, very cheap money," Ross said. "We wheeled out our program, about $7 billion over the last couple of years, 37 loans, $15 billion in infrastructure, and it has saved about $3.5 billion in taxpayer money because when you finance through us, rather than going through the open market bonds or public finance banks, we beat it by several percent."

The panelists talk about water quality issues. From left to right: David Ross, Tim Petty, Doug Rebout, Kurt Thiede and Bryan Steil.

Both Petty and Ross said the EPA and DOI are working on making data available to the public that can be used in further grant funding for various conservation projects surrounding water quality issues. Rebout said his farm has worked with the University of Wisconsin-Madison program Discovery Farms for five years to monitor runoff in the fields as a means of improving water quality.

"We're checking, OK, what are we doing? How are we doing it? Is it a good job? Where can we improve? Then that information goes out to our neighbors," Rebout said. "Our farm is no different than any other farm around here, and everyone is working to make sure that the water quality around here is good."

Other elected officials made an appearance at the event, including State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit; State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville; and State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton.