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Conservation Compliance and Wetland Mitigation Banking

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NRCS Selects Wetland Mitigation Banks in Fiscal Year 2016

NRCS​ is investing more than $7 million to fund agricultural wetland mitigation banks in 10 Midwest and Northern Great Plain states. Projects were selected based on the extent of wetland compliance workload in their target area, applicant experience, and their potential to provide wetland credits within two years. In total, NRCS​ received 24 applications from potential partners.  See a list of awarded projects and short summaries.

What Is Mitigation Banking?

Wetland mitigation banking is the restoration, creation or enhancement of wetlands for the purpose of compensating for unavoidable impacts to wetlands at another location. Wetland mitigation banking is commonly used to compensate for wetland impacts from development, but it also used for impacts from agriculture.

Conservation compliance provisions for wetlands, commonly called Swampbuster provisions, aim to remove certain incentives to produce agricultural commodities on converted wetlands.  Producers seeking benefits through most USDA programs must meet conservation compliance by filing form AD-1026, affirming they will not drain, dredge or fill wetlands in order to grow commodity crops. In situations where avoidance or on-site mitigation is challenging, the Farm Bill allows for off-site mitigation through mitigation banking.

How Mitigation Banking Works

Producers can buy credits from wetlands mitigation banks to compensate for the impact of lost wetlands. Wetland mitigation banks are established through the restoration, creation or enhancement of wetlands. When a mitigation bank is established, the landowner retains ownership and use of the property, while a conservation easement protects the wetlands from degrading activities. The size and scope of the wetland restoration, creation or enhancement activities determine the quantity of credits available for sale. The price of credits is negotiated between the buyer and seller.

For NRCS, the National Food Security Act Manual outlines the mitigation requirements for conservation compliance.  See NRCS Mitigation for more information about compliance for wetlands.

How Mitigation Banks Are Developed

Bank sponsors develop mitigation banks.  A bank sponsor is any individual or entity that develops wetlands for use in wetland mitigation banking. The sponsor is responsible for the cost of wetland development, as well as long-term maintenance to ensure that the wetland continues to function as designed in the future.

Credits are determined using a functional assessment procedure that evaluates individual wetland functions. As the credits are sold, they are subtracted from the bank until all of the available credits are purchased. At this time, the mitigation bank closes and no additional credits can be sold from that bank.

Mitigation Banks and Land Use

Only wetlands that have been restored, enhanced or created can qualify as a site for wetland mitigation banks.  Preserving existing wetlands does not qualify as this does not produce replacement acres of wetlands. Bank sponsors should consider the credit market in the local area to determine whether the bank would be best suited to provide agriculture credits.

As a general rule, former wetlands restored to their original condition provide the best chance for success in generating wetland functions and values. Next best is wetland enhancement, and lastly, wetland creation on land without a prior history of wetland conditions. Long-term success and stability are important considerations, since the bank sponsor is required to provide long-term site maintenance to ensure it continues to function as designed.

Types of Wetlands

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Restored wetlands are typically easier and less expensive to develop. In many cases, land is reverted to its original wetland state through an alteration in hydrology. Download practice standard for Restored Wetlands (PDF, 47 KB).

Enhanced wetlands are defined by activities that accentuate one or more specific wetland functions for specific purposes. The depth and duration of ponding may be altered to support wildlife or different vegetation encouraged to improve water quality. Typically, these modifications of the landscape and hydrology are more expensive to develop and maintain as compared with restored wetlands. Download practice standard for Enhanced Wetlands (PDF, 43 KB).

Created wetlands are commonly the most difficult and costly to develop and maintain.  These are wetlands developed in a landscape and on soils which did not originally support a wetland.  As a result more elaborate engineering design, installation of structures, and/or water pumps may be necessary to develop and maintain created wetlands. Download practice standard for Created Wetlands (PDF, 36 KB).

One potential source for wetland mitigation bank acres includes land coming out of wetland practices enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The National Food Security Act Manual allows CRP land to be used for wetland mitigation once the CRP contract expires.  The Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources has prepared a fact sheet (PDF, 192 KB) on the cost and environmental benefits of using expired CRP lands for mitigation banks.

For more information on wetland mitigation banking at NRCS, contact Shaun Vickers.