Data Cause Alarm in Wetland Farming Rule Changes

The Department of Agriculture is about to modernize its rules for discouraging farmers from planting on wetlands. But to decide what’s a wetland, it’s sticking to rainfall records that are nearly 20 years old.

That’s one wrinkle in USDA’s proposed changes to wetland determinations, which the agency says are minor adjustments but some environmental groups say could result in wetland losses in sensitive areas such as the “prairie pothole” region. An interim final rule could come within days, igniting a debate between farm groups and environmental advocates.

The department has told stakeholders it’s likely to continue using precipitation records from the period 1971 to 2000, rather than using more recent data, groups said. The period since 2000 has been wetter in parts of the prairie pothole region, according to Jan Goldman-Carter, senior director of wetlands and water resources for the National Wildlife Federation.

Looking at a 30-year period is typical for drawing precipitation maps for all kinds of purposes, following recommendations from the World Meteorological Organization. NOAA does so, as well — but relies on the period 1981 to 2010, according to its website.

A spokeswoman for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service didn’t have a comment on the proposed regulations when contacted Tuesday, but the agency said in an update on its “unified agenda” regulations recently that the conservation compliance provisions were last updated in 2015 and that, broadly, the new measures would “ensure that the regulations are consistent with the current technical standards being applied.”

Officials are also trying to balance environmental protection and wildlife habitat with farmers’ property rights. Farm groups have complained that wetland determinations aren’t applied consistently and often penalize farmers who have acted in good faith to conserve sensitive areas. Among other issues, a provision that’s supposed to protect farm activities that have “minimal effect” on wetlands hasn’t been well defined, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The compliance provisions are especially sensitive around the “swampbuster” program, which bars farmers from crop insurance and other federal farm programs if they convert wetlands into cropland; in some cases, they’re allowed to plant on land that cycles between wet and dry, if the crop is limited to the dry period. That program has been in effect since 1985.

Farmers whose land was converted from wetland to crops before 1985 are exempt. But proving that isn’t always easy if land has gone into and out of production, farm advocates say. Some 55 million acres of prior converted cropland is caught up in the debate, Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall wrote in a blog post on the group’s website in June, urging a revamp of the swampbuster program.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), have criticized aspects of the program, such as a USDA agreement with Ducks Unlimited — an advocate for swampbuster — to help farmers craft conservation plans. The agreement helped reduce a backlog of wetland determination applications during the Obama administration, but Ducks Unlimited is now among the groups expressing concern about USDA’s moves on conservation compliance (Greenwire, June 19, 2015).

Officials use precipitation records and other information, such as aerial photography, to draw maps used in wetland determinations.

“How those maps are drawn is really critical. It’s the foundation for the effectiveness of the program,” Goldman-Carter said.

Each method has its shortcomings. Snapshots taken from airplanes, usually in summer, often show dry areas that in other times of the year are wet. The department has said it plans to rely more heavily on that and other off-site methods, especially to assess the “minimal effect” on neighboring wetlands, according to a summary given to stakeholder groups at a meeting in August.

Officials also said they’ll simplify hydrology criteria and clarify certification of prior wetland determinations, including the period from 1990 to 1996, a period that’s drawn scrutiny from USDA’s Office of the Inspector General for questionable determinations. Officials relied on outdated maps and information, resulting in many acres of wetlands being “inappropriately drained” and converted to agricultural production, the OIG said in a 2017 report.

The proposal will also include updated definitions for “pothole” and other terms used in the determinations, NRCS told stakeholders.

Ducks Unlimited is “certainly keeping an eye” on USDA’s moves, said the organization’s director of public policy, Kellis Moss. “I don’t think we know much yet till we see what’s going to be in there.”

Originally published at (Greenwire) on 10/25/18.
Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers