USDA Gets It Wrong on Wetland Determination

November 10, 2008 | Roger McEowen

 

USDA gets it wrong on wetland determination.  The “Swampbuster” rules were enacted as part of the conservation provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill.  In general, the rules prohibit the conversion of “wetland” to crop production by producers that are receiving farm program payments.  A farmer that is determined to have improperly converted wetland is deemed ineligible for farm program payments.  But, an exception exists for wetland that was converted to crop production before December 23, 1985 – the effective date of the 1985 Farm Bill.  Under the Swampbuster rules, “wetland” has:  (1) a predominance of hydric soil; (2) is inundated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support a prevalence of hydrophytic vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions, and (3) under normal circumstances does support a prevalence of such vegetation.  In other words, to be a wetland, a tract must have hydric soils, hydrophytic vegetation and wetland hydrology.   

Here, the plaintiff purchased the tract in issue in 1997.  The tract had been farmed by the prior owner’s tenant from 1972 to 1986, and was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program from 1987 to 1997.  The plaintiff purchased the property in 1999, before the USDA determined that a portion of the tract was wetland.  In spite of that determination, the plaintiff removed some woody vegetation in 2000 because it was a nuisance to the plaintiff’s farming operation.  USDA determined that the plaintiff had “converted” 0.9 acres of wetland.  However, the plaintiff claimed that the tract had been cropped before December 23, 1985, thereby making it prior converted cropland.  Also, the plaintiff introduced evidence that a drainage tile had been installed before December 23, 1985, and that the tile, along with a road ditch, removed the wetland hydrology from the tract.  But, USDA believed that the tile was not functioning as of December 23, 1985, because woody vegetation existed. 

The plaintiff’s expert civil engineer, however, concluded that if the drainage tile had been plugged, when the USDA broke the tile during the on-site field investigation, the resulting hole would have filled full of water and saturated the ground and would have continued to be fed from water from further up the tile line.  But, that did not occur.  So, the plaintiff argued that the drainage tile coupled with the installation of a road ditch removed the presence of wetland hydrology from the tract.  USDA disagreed, claiming that the presence of hydrophytic vegetation, by itself, demonstrated that wetland hydrology was present. 

The court didn’t buy the USDA’s argument.  The court noted the statute clearly specifies that a “wetland” has three separate, mandatory requirements:  (1) hydric soil; (2) wetland hydrology, and; (3) hydrophytic vegetation.  In addition, the court noted that the presence of hydrophytic vegetation is not sufficient to meet the wetland hydrology requirement.  In addition, the court determined that the USDA reached its conclusion by disregarding evidence contrary to its experts that were relevant on the issues involved. 

Accordingly, the court ruled that the USDA hearing officer’s “final” determination must be overturned as arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law.  As for attorney fees, the court stated that it would reserve the issue for consideration upon a specific application for attorney fees.  B & D Livestock Co. v. Schafer, No. C 07-3070-MWB, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90038 (N.D. Iowa Nov. 5, 2008).