Blog

See No Wetlands, Protect No Wetlands

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Ducks on a farm wetland

In May 2021, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on how wetlands are being protected in America’s farm country. The report, Farm Programs: USDA Should Take Additional Steps to Ensure Compliance with Wetland Conservation, came at the request of Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Specifically, Senator Stabenow asked GAO to review how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is implementing the Farm Bill's wetlands protection provisions – long known as "Swampbuster" – in the Prairie Pothole region of the northern Great Plains. Swampbuster is a common-sense provision first introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill. The concept is simple: Farmers must agree not to make more room for crops by draining or filling wetlands, or they can’t benefit from taxpayer-funded programs like discounts on crop insurance, conservation program incentives and subsidized farm loans.

The logic behind Swampbuster is also straightforward. Wetlands play a crucial role in protecting the health of our streams, rivers and groundwater supplies. That, in turn, is critical for protecting human health, as well as wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities. With all the benefits wetlands provide for all of us, we shouldn’t be rewarding farmers for destroying them.

Swampbuster is simple: Farmers must agree not to make more room for crops by draining or filling wetlands, or they can’t benefit from taxpayer-funded programs like discounts on crop insurance, conservation program incentives and subsidized farm loans.

In the new report, GAO made six recommendations for how USDA can more effectively use existing provisions to protect wetlands. The recommendations include better oversight of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state offices and clarification of USDA guidance for mapping wetlands. The recommendations also advise USDA to clarify how it selects farms for annual spot-checks to ensure farmers are complying with wetland protections, update forms used by NRCS to document wetland determinations, require documentation whenever USDA staff revise wetland maps or grant waivers to farmers, and require USDA employees to report every suspected violation they see.

These recommendations are all helpful, as far as they go. Certainly America’s wetlands are in desperate need of better management and additional protection. Wetlands in the Prairie Pothole region, as well as those in other parts of the country, have come under growing pressure as farmers seek to make a living in a difficult profession by expanding their planting areas. In order to do that, farmers have been drying out soggy spots and unprotected wetlands by installing drainage systems at a breakneck pace. From 2012 to 2017, farmers installed drain tiles on over 7 million acres of farmland. Half of those acres were in the four states in the heart of the Prairie Pothole region: Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota.

Today more than 100 million acres of U.S. farmland is drained by tile drains or ditches. The problem is that drainage systems can inadvertently dry out nearby wetlands, as well as the intended target areas – and those wetlands aren't just useless swamps, as was thought in the past. In fact, wetlands are some of the most important and valuable landscapes we have – and, now, some of the most endangered.

Among the many benefits of wetlands are the contributions they make to the security of our water resources. Wetlands play a vital role in recharging the groundwater supplies from which many Americans get their drinking water. Studies have shown that even small wetlands – exactly those that are being drained in the Prairie Pothole region – return substantial amounts of water to underground aquifers. Wetlands also help to protect our rivers and streams by filtering pollutants out of our water.

Among the many benefits of wetlands are the contributions they make to the security of our water resources. Wetlands play a vital role in recharging the groundwater supplies from which many Americans get their drinking water.

Existing wetland protections programs recognize the value of wetlands and are supposed to help conserve them. In order to do that, the agency responsible for administering the programs – USDA – has to first know where the wetlands are.

Under the current rules, USDA uses a three-pronged test based in science to identify wetlands that should be protected. Those three criteria are the presence of hydric (wetland) soils, hydrology on the land that keeps those water-logged areas wet, and soil that in its natural state can support water-loving plants.

Like GAO’s recommendations, these criteria are good ones. But they need to be backed by sound methods for determining whether a patch of ground does or doesn’t fit the three-fold definition of a wetland – and that’s where USDA’s approach to wetland protections is falling short.

To find areas that are even worth a thorough evaluation to determine whether they are or are not wetlands, USDA relies on aerial photographs taken in July or August. But anyone can see – and even USDA admits – that these summertime images systematically miss seasonal wetlands that keep our soil and water healthy every spring despite being dry for the remainder of the year. To make matters worse, these kinds of seasonal wetlands are very common in the Prairie Pothole region, exactly where the absence of adequate protections is contributing to ongoing loss of wetlands.

Spring satellite images, LiDAR data and other tools that would spot these seasonal wetlands and flag them for potential protection are readily available. By using these tools, USDA could improve the accuracy of its wetlands maps, protect more wetlands, create a more transparent system for farmers and ensure that taxpayers are not funding the destruction of crucial natural resources.


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