Are Your Taxpayer Dollars Helping to Destroy Wetlands?

By Jan Goldman-Carter

National Wildlife Federation

The Senate passed a 2013 Farm Bill that would stop this unbridled wetland drainage, but the House just refused to follow suit. Call your representatives and insist on wetland conservation compliance in the final 2013 Farm Bill.

            The Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and Western Minnesota and Iowa is known as the “duck factory’ of North America because its millions of small, shallow pothole wetlands provide essential breeding habitat for over 50% of North America’s waterfowl.

This breeding habitat supports a $2.3 billion per year duck hunting industry.

These wetlands also store flood waters — and their drainage increases flood flows and pollution downstream.

Trading Prairie Potholes for Agriculture Harms the Environment

Expanding crop production in the northern prairies is increasing wetland drainage, flood flows, sediment and nutrient pollution, and fish and wildlife habitat loss in the Mississippi River Basin.

study released in late May shows that over the last decade, wetland losses to cropland in theEastern Dakotas have increased to more than 15,300 acres per year.

These wetland losses to cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region reduce prime waterfowl breeding habitat and directly impact waterfowl populations throughout the Mississippi Flyway and beyond.

The combination of extensive drainage networks and fertilizer use also increases flood flows, soil erosion, and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Upper Mississippi River Basin and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.

And we are encouraging these costly drainage practices through taxpayer-subsidized farm payments!

Crop insurance is the largest federal benefit farmers receive (taxpayers currently subsidize 62% of premiums on average), but is currently one of the only benefits that is not linked to soil and wetlands conservation requirements.

In the Dakotas, U.S. taxpayers are paying most of the crop insurance costs for farmers, including paying them when their crop fails. This subsidy encourages farmers to expand their cropland by draining wetlands and plowing up grasslands, even where these lands are marginally productive and vulnerable to soil erosion, severe weather, and crop failure.

Taxpayers pay more crop insurance subsidies to farmers in North Dakota and South Dakota than in almost any other state: From 1995-2012, the crop insurance program in North Dakota cost federal taxpayers more than $5 billion; the price tag for South Dakota was almost $4 billion.

Crop Insurance Protects Farmers

Farmers and ranchers need a safety net against severe weather and natural disasters, and many of them do work hard to meet basic soil and wetland conservation requirements in return for that support. But it is not fair to these farmers and ranchers – or to the rest of us taxpayers — to reward “bad actors” for draining wetlands and plowing erosion-prone soils to expand their crop production. Crop insurance must not provide an incentive to destroy wetlands and grasslands that protect drinking water, mitigate the impacts of floods and provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. In this time of tightening fiscal constraints, it is wasteful and downright unfair for taxpayers to subsidize practices that burden and endanger downstream communities.

Reconnecting wetland and soil conservation compliance to crop insurance premium subsidies will restore the simple and fair agreement that ensures that farmers benefiting from a taxpayer-funded safety net continue to do their part to conserve soil and water resources on their farms.

Conservation compliance saves money and is critical for reducing soil erosion, protecting wetlands, reducing downstream flooding risk, and decreasing nutrient pollution into rivers, lakes and streams.

Let’s stop allowing our tax dollars to send our wetlands down the drain. Please urge your congressional representative to insist on re-linking conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies in the final passage of the 2013 Farm Bill.