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State Conservationist Visits With Palo Alto County Supervisors

By Staff | Mar 17, 2011

Richard Simms, State Conservationist and top official of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Iowa paid a visit to the Palo Alto County Supervisors on March 15 to discuss agricultural drainage and some apparent misconceptions.

“The 1985 Farm Bill gave the NRCS responsibility for wetland compliance,” Simms explained. “The wetland compliance said basically if a wetland is removed, it needs to be replaced, or mitigated with the same functions and values of the wetland being removed.”

“Our agency promotes conservation practices and we install conservation practices that help address water quality,” Simms said. “A cover crop is a very good example; field borders, filter strips and nitrate removal wetlands are a conservation practice that we support. It is a good practice to take nitrates out of the water, so we do support, NRCS does support nitrate removal wetlands.”

Simms said his intent is to make sure that farmer-producers who want to participate in USDA programs stay in compliance with the 1985 Farm Bill. He then identified two concerns that were brought before the NRCS, the wetland mitigation ratio and the depth of water in a nitrate removal wetland.

“So the question has come up, what do we do when a producer wants to drain a farmed wetland, which is a producer’s right, I’m not saying it’s not, and they want to mitigate that for one of these CREP-type wetlands,” Simms said. “We have to look at the functions and values that are being removed from the prairie pothole and converting that over to the treatment wetland. We call that out-of-kind mitigation because they’re not the same.”

According to Simms, he is looking for input from the scientific community on the subject, knowing engineers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mitigation ratios, they vary from one and one-half acres for one acre up to four acres for one for in-kind mitigation. “One-to-one ratios are great. We support one to one when you go from prairie pothole to prairie pothole and we have never ever told anyone any different. The sticking point has been when you go to these out-of-kind mitigations.”

Simms noted that farmed wetlands are usually zero to 18-inches in depth. But in pre-farming days, some potholes were as deep as five feet, which is the depth being requested for a nitrate removal wetland project in Palo Alto County.

“Again, we’re coming back to the functions and values of a farmed wetland versus the functions and values of a nitrate removal wetland,” Simms said.

“I need to let you know that there is rumors going around this county that our agency is trying to stop this and we are not trying to stop it. All we are trying to do is make sure that the farmers don’t get in trouble with the ’85 Farm Bill,” Simms added.

“As supervisors, our concern is that this is the breadbasket of the United States,” Board Chair Keith Wirtz responded, “It’s all about raising the food here. Drainage in our area is the most important thing for our farmers so when there is a program that can help our drainage systems, that’s a good thing. There are a lot of hungry people in the world and we’re looking at it for anything to help our drainage systems to help our farmers raise more food.”

Dean Lemke of the Iowa Department of Agriculture of Land Stewardship, who is heading up a proposed nitrate removal wetland project in Palo Alto Drainage Districts 15 North and South, spoke on the benefits of the project, and identified the mitigation and water depth questions Simms alluded to as problems for the project. Drainage Engineer Don Etler echoed Lemke’s comments, noting that if mitigation ratios rose and the depth of the proposed nitrate removal wetland were limited the cost per acre would skyrocket to an estimated $60,000.

Simms noted that the six million acres of drainage districts in Iowa had not been taken into consideration very well in the 1985 Farm Bill.

“When you have situations like this where you have a sub unit of government, which is a drainage district, attempting to do improvements in infrastructure, which is needed, the Farm Bill kicks in and that’s why we try to work in a cooperative fashion,” Simms said.