Policy Pulse: NRCS Proposes Changes to Wetland Determinations

Photo credit: USFWS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) held listening sessions in July and August seeking public input on changes to the Farm Bill’s wetland compliance provisions. The sessions focused on how wetlands are defined and identified using modern technologies (in lieu of onsite visits) and on the implementation of agricultural wetland mitigation banks.

The 2014 Farm Bill requires USDA to utilize new technologies to improve the efficiency and accuracy of wetland determinations – which is the process of analyzing and formally determining whether a wet area meets the definition of a “wetland” – and to significantly increase the use of computer-based conservation practice planning tools. The decisions NRCS makes about the process and criteria guiding such determinations will directly – and potentially negatively – affect wetland conservation nationwide. NRCS already relies heavily on aerial imagery – usually taken in late summer – to make wetland determinations. This often fails to capture seasonal or temporary wetlands prevalent in the Prairie Pothole Region, which are critical to wildlife, water quality, and flood protection.

In evaluating use of technology in wetland determinations, we strongly encourage NRCS to utilize spring imagery to ensure the agency captures seasonal and temporary wetlands. We also strongly oppose certification of wetland determinations made prior to passage of the 1996 Farm Bill, which created specific requirements for wetland determinations – provisions developed due to concerns that an overwhelming percentage of wetland determinations made between 1990 and 1996 were inaccurate. While it’s desirable to make the wetland determination process more efficient and to clear backlogs, the quality of those assessments should not be sacrificed in the process.

The 2014 Farm Bill also created a wetland mitigation banking program for agricultural lands and provided $10 million to support the effort – with virtually no guidance on how to operate it. As NRCS develops this program, there is a very real threat that it could be misused or abused by allowing wetlands to be drained and filled because they will be “replaced” elsewhere through the mitigation bank. Converting wetlands to agricultural use should be avoided and wetland mitigation used only as a last resort. Where used, wetland mitigation should involve restoration of quality wetlands similar in type and function to the converted wetlands, and mitigation banks must account for the actual cost of mitigation by accurately assessing the multiple benefits provided by natural wetlands.

The League is leading efforts to ensure NRCS hears from Ikes and other Americans about the importance of wetland resources. League staff and members are actively participating in NRCS meetings and other events, pressing the agency to develop policies that prioritize conservation and limit potential for misuse or abuse.