Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Will the Next Farm Bill Encourage Wetland Loss?

The current Farm Bill is due to expire in September of 2012.  If it is not revised or extended, funding for many current programs will sunset. In addition, there is a provision in the Farm Bill which causes it to revert to the 1949 Farm Bill if it is not reauthorized.  This is unacceptable because the programs would be based on crops and crop prices from over 60 years ago.  Therefore, by the end of the fiscal year (September 30) Congress will need to take action.

The Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, perhaps more than any other piece of legislation, is responsible for helping the country to achieve ‘No Net Loss’ of wetlands in recent years.  This is because historically the great majority of wetlands destroyed were converted to agriculture.  For example agricultural development was responsible for 87% of the 11 million acres of wetlands lost from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. These high rates of loss occurred years before the addition of Conservation Title programs to the Farm Bill.  The Conservation Title has two important provisions, which have stemmed and reversed wetland losses due to agriculture:

The Conservation Compliance Provisions of the Farm Bill include Swampbuster, which disqualifies an agricultural producer (farmer) from receiving a long list of USDA subsidies if they alter a wetland and make it possible for a commodity crop to grow there.

The Wetland Reserve Program has restored over two million acres of wetlands from 1990-2008.  (http://www.wetlandresearch.com/wiki/index.php?title=
Wetland_Reserve_Program
).

But these programs may be rendered ineffective, or at least much less effective, in the next Farm Bill.  Big changes are expected.  The nation’s enormous budget deficit means there is likely to be less funding available for farm programs.  This combined with the recent sky-high prices for commodity crops such as corn have led to a lot of discussion about eliminating and/or significantly revising price support programs linked to Swampbuster and combining or otherwise making adjustments to programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program that reimburse farmers for protecting and conserving natural resources including wetlands.

The largest issue on the horizon with respect to wetland loss is what happens to Swampbuster.  More correctly the problem is likely to be what doesn’t happen.   Swampbuster is not a regulation.  It is a requirement that agriculture producers must comply with to receive tax-payer funded support.  However, not all tax-payer funded support requires compliance with Swampbuster, including crop insurance.

If many of the existing programs that farmers enroll in go away, then a number of experts believe the only program farmers will care about being eligible for is crop insurance and crop insurance is not linked to Swampbuster. This means that an agricultural producer could convert wetlands to cropland this year and receive a crop insurance payment for a flood on that drained wetland the next year.  Last year the federal government spent $7.4 billion to subsidize crop insurance premiums according to a recently released GAO report.  http://www.courant.com/business/connecticut-insurance/hc-crop-insurance-gao-20120413,0,7203196.story

How likely is it that drained wetlands will flood?   According to a report by Ralph Heimlich of Agricultural Conservation Economics, 555 counties, mostly in the Mississippi River Valley have flooded 10 years out of the past 21.  It will be no surprise to wetland and natural hazard professionals that there is a strong correlation between drained hydric soils (drained wetlands), flooding, and both insured and uninsured disaster payments.  In those 10 years when there was flood a total $3.8 billion for crop insurance, over 4 billion of uninsured disaster payments was paid out to residents of those counties.

If more wetlands are drained, then flood storage is lost and flooding will get worse.

For some information on how many acres of wetland might be at risk, a recent report on Conservation Policy: Compliance Provisions for Soil and Water Conservation Systems by the Economic Research Service indicates that agricultural producers that manage 332 million acres of farmland will have fewer incentives to comply with Swampbuster if some of the anticipated changes occur.  http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/ConservationPolicy/compliance.htm

About two thirds of this acreage is cropland, but the rest is not.  Another part of the report states that of the estimated 90 million acres of wetlands currently subject to Swampbuster, 12.9 million are adjacent to existing cropland.  If these wetland acres were drained and converted to agriculture it means more than 10 % of the remaining wetlands in the lower 48 states would be lost.

The Clean Water Act is unlikely to be a factor in stemming wetland loss.  It does not regulate drainage activities. Even if it did, isolated wetlands such as the Prairie Potholes are not regulated by the Clean Water Act since the SWANCC Supreme Court decision.  Finally, normal farming activities (which are continually changing with innovations in science and technology) are exempt from the act.

Is the likelihood of major wetland losses real? Well it would require some additional analyses to really quantify the magnitude of the problem.  But it seems likely that if crop insurance is not linked to Swampbuster in the next Farm Bill, then the federal government and taxpayers will help be subsidizing a ‘safety net’ for agricultural producers that will also serve as a subsidy for future wetland loss.

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