Altering wetlands could cost producers program benefits

LINCOLN—Nebraska farmers are urged to talk with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) before draining any wet areas or bringing new land into production.

NRCS State Wildlife Biologist Ritch Nelson says there has been an increased interest by producers to install tile drainage systems to address soil moisture issues on cropland.

“It is important to note that producers who receive certain benefits from USDA may be subject to restrictions when tile drainage systems impact wetlands protected by the Food Security Act initially passed in 1985,” Nelson said.

Those benefits include USDA loans and disaster payments from the Farm Service Agency, conservation programs from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and federal crop insurance premium subsidies.

Nelson said for growers planning to install a new drainage system, it’s a good idea to contact the Farm Service Agency and sign an AD-1026 form.

“Then the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will complete a wetland determination to make sure the ground you’re installing on isn’t a wetland,” he said.

Nelson pointed out that wetlands are not always as obvious as a pond of water with ducks swimming in it. In fact, wetlands are not always wet.

“Wetlands are identified by several characteristics, including hydric soils, hydrophytic (or “water-loving”) vegetation, and inundated or saturated hydrology. Areas of a field that are difficult to plant during a wet spring may exhibit these characteristics even if they do not pond water for several days at a time,” Nelson said.

Wetlands protected by the Food Security Act can be difficult for producers to identify on their own. Protected wetlands may be small, and may occur in places such as shallow depressions on flat cropland, along a sloped drainage where a side hill seep is present or along the fringe of a small stream channel, just to name a few examples.

“It is important to consult with NRCS on your tile design prior to installation to ensure it won’t affect your farm program eligibility” Nelson said. “In some cases, the tile could be designed to drain some areas of the field without affecting the hydrology of the wetland. These design considerations are based on site-specific factors, so you will need to consult with NRCS to determine what you can do.”

Nelson stressed that these requests should be submitted to USDA as early as possible since some counties experience a high volume of requests for certified wetland determinations.

Often, field data must be collected at times of the year when the ground is not frozen or when tall crops such as corn restrict access to the possible wetland areas.

“If you have a wet area which you’re considering altering, come in and talk to the NRCS staff. We can do a wetland determination to know if that area is a wetland or not and keep you in compliance with your current conservation plan,” Nelson said. “The ramifications of altering wetlands can be significant in terms of the potential for losing USDA financial assistance and also in the amount of time that it takes to resolve unapproved alterations.”

Landowners are also encouraged to visit NRCS staff about voluntary conservation programs that provide farmers payments for preserving or restoring wetlands.

Landowners benefit by retaining ownership and access to their land. They no longer try to farm marginal cropland, and have possible income opportunities from recreation, grazing or haying.

For more information about wetlands, conservation programs or compliance issues, visit the local NRCS field office or www.ne.nrcs.usda.gov.