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USDA’s Inspector General points to botched implementation of compliance checks that ensure real benefits go to fish and wildlife habitat on private lands
After thousands of hours of work, hundreds of meetings with Congressional staff, and three years of shared effort with colleagues that had become like family, I poured a tall Maker’s Mark when the president signed the 2014 Farm Bill at a special ceremony in Michigan. The law included bipartisan language that extended conservation compliance to the federal crop insurance program, the importance of which would be difficult to overstate. Was it the perfect compliance provision? Honestly, no. But politics is still the art of the possible, and I believe it was the strongest provision possible.
After all of that effort from so many folks, it is more frustrating than usual to hear from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) watchdog agency that the provision the TRCP prioritized over all others has not been implemented with the vigor it requires. This should not only alarm sportsmen-conservationists but also the American taxpayer.
For the uninitiated, conservation compliance can be explained like this: It’s a way for taxpayers to be sure that, in exchange for farm support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. Conservation compliance has applied to almost all USDA support programs since 1985, and the 2014 Farm Bill expanded compliance requirements to the federal crop insurance program, which has grown over the years to be the biggest farm support program. Conservation compliance is not onerous for farmers, most of whom have been subject to the requirements for years.
But a report issued in March by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which serves as the internal watchdog at the USDA, outlined a serious problem with the enforcement of conservation compliance. Many tracts of land that were subject to compliance were not being included in the random checks performed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In fact, in 2015, the first year after the new Farm Bill was passed, ten states—including major agricultural hubs like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota—had zero tracts subject to random compliance checks. That’s right. Zero. In Iowa!
The report mostly points to a lack of coordination between several USDA agencies, and it cites the need for a “Memorandum of Understanding” between those agencies to ensure a better universe of data and that an actual human being at each agency is held responsible for appropriate implementation. Frankly, these are typical shortcomings of a large bureaucracy that no one would describe as nimble. But what is at stake is critically important: water quality and the health of potentially innumerable wetlands, not to mention the continued defensibility of these financial support programs to the American taxpayer.
But let’s get to the main thrust of the problem: a bureaucratic lack of desire. The USDA is a department that for a hundred years has been in the business of writing checks to producers. Its stock-in-trade is financial incentives that smooth out the inherent risks of agriculture, making life more predictable for American farmers—and that is a laudable thing. This incentive-based business model is why the USDA is still a relatively popular federal entity; as a result, USDA finds it difficult to risk losing the popularity that comes with spreading the wealth. It is nice to be loved.
But the law must be enforced, and the USDA has a responsibility—not just to agricultural producers, but also to the American taxpayers who have invested billions in farmland conservation and expect plentiful clean water in return.
We work hard on Capitol Hill to make sure that the laws passed by Congress aim for the best results possible for fish and wildlife habitat. That can be an all-consuming task. But we cannot forget that the job continues for years after the ink on those laws is dry. For the duration of this five-year Farm Bill, and as we turn our attention to the next one, the TRCP will continue our work; we must close the gaps in compliance enforcement that are unnecessarily costing us our wetlands, water quality, and hard-earned wages.
Why aren’t we celebrating the one-year anniversary of better protections for headwater streams and wetlands?
Today marks one year since the EPA and Army Corps finalized and signed the Clean Water Rule, which clarifies, after nearly 15 years of confusion, exactly what waters are—and are not—protected by the Clean Water Act. The rule has huge importance for cold-water fisheries and the majority of waterfowl habitat in the country, yet we’re still not able to move forward with implementing it.
Sadly, almost before the ink was even dry on the final rule last May, the courts upended the decision and blocked the agencies from rolling out protections for these waters and wetlands. We have been forced to wait for a court decision while fish and wildlife habitat remains at risk of pollution and destruction.
Meanwhile, headwater streams, which make up 60 percent of stream miles in America and support our trout fisheries and salmon spawning grounds, are in limbo. These waters feed into warm-water fisheries and drinking water sources downstream.
While this widely-celebrated rule remains blocked, wetlands that provide high quality waterfowl habitat go without clear protections. And the rate of wetlands loss in the United States increased by 140 percent between 2004 and 2009, the years immediately following the Supreme Court rulings the created Clean Water Act confusion.
Today, nearly half of the nation’s river and stream miles are in poor biological condition while one-third of U.S. wetlands are in poor condition. We will need a clear and effective Clean Water Act to realize sportsmen’s desire for clean cold streams, healthy wetlands, and the ability to share these resources with our kids. Of course, court-issued roadblocks to implementing the Clean Water Rule are mostly out of our hands. But it’s important for sportsmen to note that many in Congress seem intent on preventing the EPA and Army Corps from ever fixing the confusion in the Clean Water Act.
Don’t allow Congress to dictate your sporting heritage. Sportsmen must speak up for strong, science-based protections for the waters and wetlands we care about.
On May 27, 2016—the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Clean Water Rule—contact your lawmakers to say that you want clean water for fish and wildlife. Tell them you support the Clean Water Rule and urge them to oppose any legislation that would stand in the way of this victory for sportsmen. Let’s flood their offices with support for healthy headwaters and wetlands.
The Senate and House are both in session this week. Next week, the chambers will be in recess.
The odds seem stacked against an energy reform package with sportsmen’s priorities. On Friday, the House dropped a revised energy bill that they are seeking to conference with Senate-passed energy legislation. However, with the clock ticking and the window of opportunity most definitely getting smaller, the House has added several provisions that seem to complicate the way forward for the energy package, including a controversial drought bill, a critical minerals package, and “The Resilient Federal Forests Act.” The House has also added their version of the sportsmen’s package, “The SHARE Act,” which will need to be conferenced with the key sportsmen’s act provisions in the Senate energy package. The House must still pass its amended legislation, but House-side conferees are expected to be named this week. There will be a House Rules Committee hearing on merging the House and Senate bills, as well.
The Senate has not yet named conferees, but would-be conference leader Chairwoman Murkowski has expressed interest in coming together quickly on next steps. Still, with so much discord between the two chambers, it could be a tall order for any conference committee to reconcile on a package that will pass.
Congress is also chipping away at appropriations bills. Last week, the Senate combined “The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” and “The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” into H.R. 2577, which passed with a 89-8 vote. The House passed their version of the military construction spending bill, too, with a 295-129 vote.
This week, the House will move to “The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act,” which would provide adequate funding—a marginal increase from the President’s budget request—for the WaterSMART program to help keep water in our rivers for fish and wildlife. The increase goes to grants, a water recycling and reuse program, and the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, which would provide financial assistance for promotion of local water management solutions. However, the House bill includes language that would block the administration’s Clean Water Rule and does nothing to address Western drought. The Senate energy and water spending bill includes $100 million earmarked for a response to the lack of water in the West.
Then, on Wednesday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies will mark up appropriations bills for the U.S. Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Forest Service. Language has not yet been released, but the bill will likely address the costs of fire suppression, endangered species listings, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
A wary eye goes to the Senate NDAA. Last Wednesday night, the House passed its version of “The National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA), including provisions that would effectively halt federal conservation plans to restore and protect greater sage-grouse habitat, with a 277-147 vote. This week, the Senate will consider its version of the NDAA, which does not currently include any controversial language about the imperiled grouse. We could still see a similarly worded amendment offered before the Senate votes and leaves for the Memorial Day recess.
We’re also pulling for naturally-occurring water infrastructure to be emphasized in important water legislation. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released its version of the “Water Resource Development Act,” (WRDA), which would address national water resource projects managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. During the committee mark-up, Congressman Sanford (R-S.C.) is expected to champion language that would promote naturally-occurring infrastructure to enhance fish and wildlife habitat over traditional metal structures.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee already passed its version of WRDA, providing $9 billion in funds for water resource projects. The same appeal for natural infrastructure over new construction is expected when WRDA reaches the Senate floor sometime this summer.
What Else We’re Tracking
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Research, monuments, and facilities on public lands, to be discussed in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing
Water rights and agreements up for authorization in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing
Appropriations impacting federal fisheries, headed for a House Appropriations Committee mark-up on the commerce, science, and transportation spending bill
An inquiry into DOI ethics, to be explored the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in a hearing
Implementation of the Clean Water Rule, to be discussed in a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife hearing
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Mining safety and technological innovation will be explored in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing
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