NRCS chief promises wetland solution for frustrated Red River Valley farmers

By: Mikkel Pates


WEST FARGO, N.D. — The head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service promised by September to come up with a just solution for wetland determination backlogs when he spoke Monday at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds here.

Wetlands determinations that are held up, waiting for NRCS approval, have become frustrating for the region’s farmers, particularly those in the central and southern Red River Valley. They want to use tile drainage or water management to contend with a string of wet years, and to capitalize on higher commodity prices and land values.

“I have one shot to make this right,” said NRCS chief Dave White, who came to Fargo at the invitation of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “It’s got to be legally defensible. It’s got to be fair, it’s got to be equitable, it’s got to be transparent. If I screw this up, it’s going to be bollocks for the USDA in lawsuits for the next 20 years. I’m begging, pleading for your patience as a lot of these things are worked through.”

Fed up farmers

Farmers who want to tile and need to drain land must fill out federal forms (AD-1026), requiring that NRCS complete a “certified” wetland determination. This can start with office work, but ends with a field determination.

The NRCS uses aerial photography to make preliminary determinations. Part of this involves various markers including wet spots that have shown up because of historic wet conditions. Farmers who thought they had two or three wetlands on a tract of land now were disappointed to find out that they have 20 spots that weren’t identified before.

The appearance of wetlands can stop the drainage project until a field determination is made. Farm program benefits are at risk if the drainage goes forward without it.

Fed up with the backlog, some farm leaders at the meeting reported that they or their neighbors have dropped out of the farm program entirely. Hoeven took the opportunity to stress that he’s against tying conservation compliance to crop insurance, which is one tool environmental groups have advocated to keep conservation techniques in place.

White said his agency has received 34,713 wetland determination requests from 2009 to 2011 in the four Upper Midwest states. “We’ve done about 24,000 of them and we have about 11,000 of them left,” he said. The agency puts “a few million dollars into the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa, to hire people to do that,” he said.

Mary Podoll, NRCS State Conservationist, based in Bismarck, said the agency completed 3,000 determinations in the past 18 months but has some 3,500 additional sitting on the books today.

“Yesterday we were losing ground, but with some of the changes the chief has suggested that can be implemented fairly quickly, we will start gaining ground this summer,” Podoll said.

Fixing the backlog

Among the ways suggested to cut the backlog is to create a procedure for off-site wetlands determinations. One likely idea is to use a 30-year history of wetland mapping as a baseline for establishing normal conditions on farm lands.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration uses a 30-year period to determine a “normal” average. The agency’s “baseline” for what is a wetland would start with precipitation data from 1970 to 2000, which includes 15 years before and 15 years after the 1985 conservation compliance provisions were started. High and low precipitation years would be discarded to represent a reasonable range. The agency would come up with five of the most representative years for weather, and would even use methods to “normalize” those, to compensate for data collected before and after a big rain.

White said that if the data show a “wetland signature” at least 60 percent of the time it would constitute a farmed wetland in a remote wetland determination. If it’s seen less than 30 percent, it isn’t a wetland. If it’s there from 30 to 60 percent of the time, the NRCS would send someone out to look at it.

White said a streamlined remote approach will “unify around a set of climate data” and get teams up and running that can specialize in the process. Plus, the agency is planning to offer producers more options for mitigation. White said he thinks USDA can approve some of the procedures in a month. He said the agency also is in the process of finalizing parts of the process, including mathematical formulas for setbacks — distances that tile must be from wetlands — by September.

Bill Hejl, an Amenia, N.D., farmer was among those cautioning White to include snowfall precipitation and not just precipitation over a three-month (May to July) period. “If we have 140 inches of snow it’s going to look wet for a long time.”

White said he’s leaning toward allowing farmers to opt for a field determination and opt out of the remote determination. Similarly, he is considering allowing farmers to certify an entire tract, or separate fields within a tract. He said NRCS engineers are in the process of reviewing four formulas for setbacks. “For this area of the world, we will have one” formula, he says. “Everybody’s going to use the same formula for setback distances.”

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