The many benefits that wetlands provide are well documented. Wetlands provide habitat for fish and wildlife, filter nutrients and other pollutants running off farm fields, slow down flood waters, and recharge groundwater.
Congress recognized the many benefits of wetlands when it added the “Swampbuster” provision to the 1985 Farm Bill. The concept is simple: farmers who collect Farm Bill commodity payments, receive subsidized crop insurance premiums, have access to subsidized farm loans, or get Farm Bill payments for installing conservation measures must agree not to drain or fill the wetlands on their property. They can still use the land and can even plant crops in wetlands that dry up early enough in the year, but they cannot drain or fill the wetland.
Congress also enacted the “Sodbuster” provision, which requires that for farmers to be eligible for those same Farm Bill benefits, they must put in place a soil conservation plan on any highly erodible cropland they are farming. Together, Swampbuster and Sodbuster are sometimes called “conservation compliance,” and they represent a pact between farmers who collect Farm Bill benefits and the taxpayers who fund these benefits.
In May 2018, the Izaak Walton League and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) issued a report summarizing the benefits of Swampbuster and the wetland losses that could result if Congress weakens Swampbuster. The report, Wetland Conservation in the Farm Bill: The Importance of Swampbuster, highlights some of the misconceptions people have about wetlands – like that they always have standing water (we call those “ponds”) or that wetlands are difficult to identify. The science is pretty clear on the combination of hydrology, muck soil, and water-loving vegetation that define a wetland.
When Swampbuster was enacted in 1985, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees had been taking aerial photographs every July or August since the 1930’s to verify crops planted and field sizes on farm lands. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service employees charged with implementing Swampbuster began using those same photos to look for wetlands, even though by late summer, many of the seasonal wetlands that support waterfowl nesting and migration had dried up. As a result, many smaller seasonal wetlands may have been missed.
Site visits are often required to understand water flow and determine whether wetland soils are present. Although aerial photos and site visits are still used today, new technology can make identifying and mapping wetlands on farms faster and more accurate. These technologies include a digital National Wetlands Inventory, LANDSAT and other satellite imagery, and LiDAR data that measures differences in land elevation.
The report by the League and NWF explains why recent proposals to weaken the Swampbuster provision are misguided and could result in the loss of millions of acres of wetlands – and the many valuable benefits they provide. For example, suggestions that an area must show up as “wet” on USDA aerial photographs at least two-thirds of the time to be considered a “wetland” ignore the fact that many seasonal wetlands are dry by late summer. Other proposals would weaken Swampbuster by reducing penalties for violations, shortening the time USDA has to make a decision (making site visits difficult or impossible), or exempting whole categories of wetlands from Swampbuster coverage.
In the report and during a briefing for congressional staff, we argued against weakening Swampbuster. We also offered common-sense ways Congress and USDA could improve Swampbuster, including:
- Using new technology to increase the speed and accuracy of wetland determinations.
- Employing and training enough staff at USDA to make onsite visits on a timely basis.
- Providing for a minimum number of spot checks every year in every state to ensure farmers are following the law.
- Making wetland determinations and exemption applications public documents so downstream neighbors and others impacted have a chance to weigh in.
- Providing a two-sided appeal process. Currently, a farmer can appeal a wetland determination if they don’t like how it came out, but the public has no right to appeal if the decision doesn’t fully protect the wetlands present.
- Including federal and state wildlife and water quality agency officials in the wetland determination process to provide additional expertise in making the decisions.
- Requiring regular reporting by USDA on the number of wetland decisions, appeals, spot checks, violations, and result of the violations at the county, state, and national levels to ensure transparency in the process.
As Congress considers a new Farm Bill, members of Congress should look at these and other ideas for strengthening Swampbuster and better protecting our vital wetlands.