Protecting America's Wetlands: 2023 Farm Bill Must Be a Wetlands Bill

Duane Hovorka
Pintail drake taking flight - credit USFWS

America’s wetlands provide huge benefits for all of us, but they face a difficult future. Drafting and passing the 2023 Farm Bill in Congress is a big opportunity to restore and protect wetlands that filter polluted runoff, recharge groundwater and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Wetlands also store large amounts of carbon, reduce erosion along our coastline and protect homes and businesses from storms and floods.

The League’s priorities for Congress in 2023 include an increase in funds for federal programs focused on wetland conservation and more consistent enforcement of the federal Swampbuster law, which is designed to protect wetlands on farms. The changes are critical if we are to protect what is left of our vital wetlands.

Centuries of draining and destroying

The League's agenda for the Farm Bill addresses our specific concern about threats to wetlands and opportunities to save them.

Since colonial times, three centuries of efforts to fill, drain and destroy wetlands have cost the lower 48 states over half of these lands – more than 100 million acres of wetlands have been lost. Also lost: habitat for nesting and migratory waterfowl, spawning habitat for fish and the capacity to store floodwaters and recharge groundwater.

Destroying those wetlands also released into the atmosphere billions of tons of climate-warming carbon that had been stored in wetland soils.

During the 20th century federal, state and local governments actively aided and funded the destruction of wetlands – often over strong opposition from League members who understood the value of swamps. By the 1970s, about 450,000 acres of wetlands a year were being destroyed.

The League and others had long pressed Congress for action, and finally in 1977 Congress amended the Clean Water Act to create a program to regulate dredging, draining and filling of wetlands and other surface waters. Although the loss of wetlands has slowed since the 1970s, about 90,000 acres of vital wetlands are being drained and filled every year.

Steps toward wetlands conservation

In the 1985 Farm Bill, Congress enacted Swampbuster, a provision that requires farmers who accept farm commodity program benefits, crop insurance subsidies, federal farm loans and conservation payments to agree not to drain or fill wetlands. Today Swampbuster protects at least 78 million acres – or three-quarters of the remaining wetlands in the lower 48 states.

Swampbuster helped slow the loss of wetlands, but conservationists recognized we needed to do more. In 1989, Congress enacted the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which created a conservation strategy for the continent and provided funding for public-private partnerships to restore and acquire wetlands.

Congress built on this success in the 1990 Farm Bill, creating the Wetlands Reserve Program to fund the restoration and long-term protection of wetlands through conservation easements. Since its creation, the Wetlands Reserve Program and its successor, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), have restored and provided permanent easements on nearly three million acres of wetlands.

When Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, it provided $450 million per year through ACEP to restore and protect wetlands and grasslands and to protect farmland from development. Since 2018, the demand from farmers and ranchers for ACEP and other U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs has far exceeded the funding Congress made available.

A breakthrough in 2022

The League and others pressed Congress to increase that funding, and in August of 2022, Congress responded with the largest commitment of new USDA conservation funds in history – $19.5 billion to help farmers and ranchers adopt climate-friendly practices.

Of that, $1.4 billion was for ACEP to protect and restore wetlands and grasslands that hold vast amounts of carbon, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

A restored wetland on an Iowa cornfield - credit Tim McCabe, USDAA restored wetland on an Iowa cornfield.

2023 Farm Bill and wetland conservation

This year, Congress will tackle the twice-per-decade responsibility of passing a Farm Bill that will influence the way that 900 million acres of private agricultural lands are managed. The bill will have lasting implications for our vanishing wetlands.

The Izaak Walton League agenda for the Farm Bill addresses our specific concern about threats to wetlands and opportunities to save them. Several key parts of that agenda follow.

League Agenda: A top priority is to protect the $19.5 billion Congress provided for farm and ranch conservation. The funds are critical if we are to restore and protect wetlands and prairies and help farmers put in place soil health and other conservation practices on tens of millions of acres of farm and ranch land over the next decade.

Congress reserved the new funds for conservation projects that will reduce, capture, avoid or store carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions – all greenhouse gases linked to climate change.

Wetlands hold several times as much soil carbon per acre as grasslands, and often 10 or 20 times as much as cropland, but much of that carbon is released when wetlands are destroyed. Yet USDA did not include wetland restoration on its list of “climate-smart” activities in 2022. After protests from the League and other wetland advocates, USDA added wetland restoration to the list of “climate-smart” activities for 2023 but initially it appears USDA is not putting a priority on funding wetland work.

League Agenda: In a December 2022 letter to USDA and comments filed jointly with other wetland and waterfowl groups, the League called on USDA to ensure some of the $19.5 billion from Congress would be used to restore and protect wetlands that store large amounts of soil carbon.

It has been 30 years since the first wetlands were enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program, and some of those wetlands have silted in or been overgrown and are ripe for restoration. As more and more of these wetlands require renovation to restore their full wetland functions, Congress needs to find funding sources to restore and protect these important assets.

League Agenda: Congress should give USDA more flexibility to use farm conservation dollars to restore wetlands that were protected by conservation easements in the past but now need renovation.

While Swampbuster protection for farmed wetlands has largely been a success story, the League and other conservation organizations have criticized USDA for its inconsistent enforcement of Swampbuster, and for leaving unprotected many seasonal wetlands that don’t hold water throughout the year.

League Agenda: By creating an independent USDA Office of Compliance in the next Farm Bill, Congress could ensure more consistent application of Swampbuster based on the best available science.

Reversing wetland losses

In a case before the Supreme Court, Sackett v. EPA, the plaintiffs (Sacketts) have asked the Court to adopt a new, extremely restrictive test for determining which waters are protected under federal law.

USDA has been inconsistent in enforcement of Swampbuster program, leaving many seasonal wetlands protected.

As the League has told the Court in an amicus brief, adopting this novel, restrictive approach would cause the loss of federal protections on about half of the remaining natural wetlands in the nation. That would put at risk the huge water, wildlife and climate benefits these wetlands deliver. Adopting that restrictive approach would make the Farm Bill’s Swampbuster protections and wetland conservation and protection program even more critical.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued a national goal of achieving no net loss of wetlands. This “no net loss” goal has been re-issued by every president, Republican or Democrat, through President Obama. More than three decades later, our nation continues to struggle to achieve this goal.

But 2023 could be the turning point where we make the goal of preserving wetlands a reality.

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Top photo: Pintail drake takes flight from a seasonal wetland in South Dakota. Credit: USFWS.

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