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USDA Updates Wetland Determination Guidance to Increase Consistency, Timeliness

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Interim final rule makes wetland conservation compliance requirements more straightforward

Dec. 7, 2018, WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is improving the process by which it makes wetland determinations, updating guidance to improve consistency and timeliness as well as to responding to feedback from farmers and other stakeholders. The updates do not change the definition of a wetland for USDA program participation purposes, but rather provide greater clarity and uniformity in how NRCS makes determinations nationwide.

Today, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is posting this updated guidance in the Federal Register as an interim final rule. NRCS is accepting comments on this rule through Feb. 5, 2019.

“These changes will help us better serve America’s farmers, ranchers and foresters through greater certainty in the wetland determination process used,” said Bill Northey, USDA’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. “We listened to what our stakeholders have to say, we held several meetings with stakeholder groups this summer, and we’ve updated the rule to improve consistency and efficiency in how we make wetland determinations following the guidance handed down by Congress.”

Wetland determinations are part of conservation compliance outlined in the Farm Bill. To be eligible for USDA programs and federal crop insurance, producers must be compliant.

Updates to the conservation compliance provisions include:

  • Identifying that determinations will rely on precipitation data from 1971-2000. Though data and average rainfall have varied over time, using this specific dataset makes determinations more predictable.
  • Clarifying the certification status of previously completed wetland determinations, including those completed 1990-1996.
  • Adding definitions for playas, potholes and pocosins. These terms are found in current policy, but they are added to the regulation for transparency.
  • Clarifying that determinations do not have to cover the entire farm tract, but only the area of the farm on which a producer is planning to make changes.
  • Establishing that NRCS can now assess offsite, impacts on neighboring wetlands when producers request minimal effects exemptions. For those neighboring wetlands, NRCS can now do the evaluations off-site using aerial photography and other resources.
  • Incorporating criteria to better reflect on-field observations of hydrology, rather than basing determinations strictly on a set number of days.

These updates were based on responses to comments received as part of the 2015 regulatory review process. Comments included requesting improved timeliness and customer service in administering the wetland conservation provisions and ensuring these provisions are consistent with the statute.

Wetland conservation compliance requires that producers refrain from planting on converted wetlands or converting wetlands for crop production to be able to participate in USDA programs and to receive federal crop insurance premium support.

Review or comment on the interim final rule on the Federal Register by Feb. 5, 2019. Learn more about conservation compliance on the NRCS website.