IWLA Farm Bill: Restoring Clean Water

Our country has made real progress in improving water quality, but our water pollution problems have not been solved. Of the streams that are monitored, more than half fail to meet basic water quality standards, and 80% of the streams across America are not even monitored for pollution10.  

Runoff of pesticides, nitrogen, phosphorus, and animal waste from farm fields and livestock operations is one of the greatest threats to our creeks and rivers. That pollution harms fish and wildlife, and communities that rely on those rivers spend billions removing pollutants to make the water safe to drink11
No Buffer Exposes Streams_LynnBetts_NRCS

America’s wetlands are also in trouble. We have lost over half of the wetlands that were in the lower 48 states in colonial times12. Despite state and federal rules designed to protect wetlands and programs to conserve wetlands, wetland loss in our country continues13. The Prairie Pothole Region alone lost more than 74,000 acres of wetlands between 1997 and 200914.

The 2018 Farm Bill should focus on restoring health to our rivers and lakes and protecting and restoring wetlands.

Defend Swampbuster

“Swampbuster” is a common-sense provision that says farmers who receive taxpayer-funded subsidies for crop production, crop insurance or farm loans or get funding for conservation practices through the Farm Bill cannot drain or fill wetlands to grow crops.

However, this protection can be undermined by how it is implemented by USDA. In some states, USDA has used inaccurate, outdated wetland maps to allow farmers to drain wetlands without losing Farm Bill benefits15.

► We will work to ensure that compliance with Swampbuster remains a basic requirement for farmers to obtain subsidized crop insurance and commodity program benefits, and that it is enforced fairly using up-to-date wetland maps.

Restore Funding for Wetland Conservation

The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated several USDA programs that fund conservation easements to protect wetlands and grasslands and for farmland preservation, creating a single Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Congress then cut the funding for the consolidated program sharply, reducing the number of wetlands that can be protected each year. As a result, wetlands protected throughthese programs fell from a high of 246,000 acres in 201016 to just 46,338 acres in 2015 and 39,604 acres in 201617.

► We will work to restore funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to at least $500 million per year to protect wetlands and grasslands for future generations.

Expand and Improve Buffers that Protect Streams

Grass buffer strips planted along streams and wetlands filter chemicals, soil, and livestock waste that run off farm fields, keeping them out of our waters. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of crop production and plant grasses or trees to filter runoff and provide habitat for wildlife.

High-value practices such as buffer strips along streams, windbreaks, and grassed waterways that reduce erosion, protect streams, and restore wetlands receive special incentives. USDA also uses the program in partnership with state agencies and conservation organizations to target CRP contracts to watersheds or regions with special water or wildlife needs.

Just under one-third of CRP acres are currently enrolled in these special initiatives (dubbed ‘Continuous Signup’ contracts by USDA). The remaining two-thirds of CRP acres are in whole-field contracts enrolled through the program’s general signups18.

The 2014 Farm Bill cut the Conservation Reserve Program by 25% to 24 million acres, reducing the ability of the program to protect streams and wetlands. In May 2017, USDA cut off new enrollments under most ‘Continuous Signup’ practices to avoid going over the 24 million acre limit19.

The 2018 Farm Bill should expand use of the program to protect rivers and wetlands and provide high-value wildlife habitat, especially in the most degraded watersheds.

► We support efforts to increase the acreage cap in the Conservation Reserve Program and to substantially increase the acres of CRP used for high-value practices such as buffer strips, filter strips, and grass waterways.

NEXT: Regenerating Our Soils >>