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Protecting America’s Dwindling Wetlands

Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director
Rainwater Basin NWR_credit USFWS_sm

Rainwater Basin NWR_credit USFWS_smA bald eagle soars under a bright blue sky, then drops down to buzz just over the heads of hundreds of ducks and geese congregated on a wetland. The commotion is immediate: the birds lift off, circling briefly before settling back down on the water. The eagle cruises back, looking for dead or dying birds that would make an easy meal. With no easy prey, the eagle flies on.

In Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin, this dance is repeated again and again every spring, as it has for thousands of years. Millions of ducks, geese, and Sandhill cranes use the Central Flyway every year as they migrate from wetlands along the Gulf Coast where they spend the winter to the wetlands across the northern plains where they will nest and hatch the next generation.

From here, some will fly as far west as Alaska and even Siberia, scattering among wetlands that stretch across the Rockies and plains and as far east as Hudson Bay and as far north as the Arctic Circle. But here in the heart of the Central Flyway, their migratory path is squeezed, just a few hundred miles wide. They use wetlands in the Rainwater Basin and the Platte River nearby as essential habitat on their long journey north, stopping to rest and refuel in the wetlands and fields in the area.

The Rainwater Basin is a complex of wetlands that stretch across south-central Nebraska. Snowmelt and rainwater fill shallow wetlands across a flat plain that was once covered by mixed grass and tallgrass prairie. Today the area is mostly “tall corn prairie,” the native grasses plowed under decades ago to grow corn, soybeans, and occasionally other crops.

Eighty to 90 percent of the historic Rainwater Basin wetlands have been drained or filled, leaving far fewer places for waterfowl to land and squeezing them into the few remaining wetlands. The wide, braided channels of the nearby Platte River provide habitat as well, but two-thirds of its historic flow are now diverted upstream, shrinking the Platte’s channel to one-fifth or less of its historic width.

These wetlands are critical habitat for millions of migrating ducks, geese, and cranes. They provide habitat year-around for muskrat, beaver, frogs, and turtles as well as nesting grounds for Great Blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, and Northern Harriers that depend on the bounty of the wetlands.

Some of the largest Rainwater Basin wetlands have been protected as national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, and state conservation areas. But most of the remaining wetlands remain in private hands, owned by farmers trying to earn a living off the land. For more than a century, farmers drained and filled wetlands. And for much of that time, government programs helped them do that.

Today, programs like the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program are helping farmers reverse the destruction, restoring wetlands that have been drained and protecting them for future generations.

We now recognize the value of wetlands as critical wildlife habitat. They also hold and recharge groundwater, which is especially important in places like the Rainwater Basin where rainfall isn’t plentiful enough to grow thirsty crops like corn and farmers supplement rainfall with water from wells. Wetlands hold and filter pesticides, fertilizer, sediment, and manure that runs off crop fields, keeping our rivers cleaner. Wetlands slow down floodwaters, providing benefits to communities downstream.

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that helps farmers restore wetlands by plugging drains and restoring native wetland plants. The program also pays the farmer to put a conservation easement on the land. The easement prohibits the current or any future owner from draining or filling the wetland, ensuring future generations will enjoy the many benefits these wetlands provide.

ACEP is a flexible program that can also be used to restore and protect native prairie and protect farm land near urban areas. Since the original Wetlands Reserve Program was established in the 1990 Farm Bill, more than 2.8 million acres of wetlands have been restored and protected and 1.6 million acres of native prairie and farmland have been protected. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress consolidated easement programs for wetlands, grasslands, and farmlands into a single program (ACEP) but cut the combined funding for conservation easements substantially. As a result, the wetlands protected through the program dropped from 246,000 acres in 2010 to less than 40,000 acres in 2016.

This year, Congress is writing a new Farm Bill, as it does about every five years. This Farm Bill comes at a critical time for wetlands. Lax enforcement of the Farm Bill’s Swampbuster provision (meant to protect wetlands) and high crop prices increased the pace of wetland destruction after decades of progress. Although crop prices have dropped, wetland destruction continues.

With the many benefits provided by America’s wetlands, we need more resources devoted to wetland restoration and protection, not fewer. The League’s 2018 Farm Bill Agenda, Health Soil, Healthy Water, calls for restoring the budget of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to at least $500 million per year and we are working hard to make that happen. We are also working to ensure the program will encourage partners to leverage their resources to protect wetlands and to make the program flexible enough to meet needs that vary greatly from state to state.

You can help by asking your members of Congress to support increased funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program in the 2018 Farm Bill

The wetlands of the Rainwater Basin have provided critical habitat for millions of migrating ducks, geese, and cranes for thousands of years. Up and down the Great Plains and throughout our country, wetlands quietly provide huge benefits for wildlife, clean water, and people. To maintain those benefits for current and future generations, we need to make the investment today to restore and protect these vital wetlands.

With your help, we can.