Senator John Thune
South Dakota’s diverse landscape includes everything from native grasslands and fertile croplands, to forestlands and wetlands. Wetlands are especially prevalent east of the Missouri River in an area known as the Prairie Pothole Region.
Farmers and ranchers in the Prairie Pothole Region are familiar with the unique challenges wetlands pose to their operations. In wetter years, seasonal wetlands can prevent crops from being planted or flood crops already planted. These complications are often exacerbated by federal regulations, which restrict how wetlands are managed by farming operations. Not only are farmers forced to deal with crop losses, but they are also forced to tread around federal rules governing the wetlands.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule redefining “waters of the U.S.” under the Clean Water Act to include nearly every stream, wetland, and ditch that has typically been regulated at the state level. This proposed expansion would have significant consequences on property owners, likely subject to new federal permit requirements, compliance costs, and threats of significant fines.
Additionally, hundreds of farmers throughout the state continue working diligently to comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “swampbuster” requirements while waiting, sometimes longer than a year, for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to complete requests for wetlands determinations needed to retain eligibility for farm program assistance.
On December 4th, I raised both of these issues with the Chief of the NRCS, Jason Weller, at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. I made clear that he and other leaders at USDA have an obligation to promote the welfare and wellbeing of agriculture producers, including defending producers from EPA’s overreaching “waters of the U.S.” rule.
I also called on Chief Weller to address the backlog of undetermined wetlands experienced by so many South Dakota producers. Chief Weller stated that since the July NRCS meeting in Aberdeen, attended by more than 300 South Dakota producers, the backlog of undetermined wetlands in South Dakota decreased by 10 percent, and is currently under 2,600 requests. He also announced South Dakota will receive additional staff to reduce the state’s current wetlands determinations backlog. Chief Weller’s goal is to completely clear the backlog in three years.While I welcome Chief Weller’s update on the progress made over the past few months, the current status of the wetlands determination backlog is still unacceptable, and more must be done to meet the needs of South Dakota producers. I will continue pushing the NRCS to eliminate the backlog of determinations, and I will continue fighting to keep EPA’s “waters of the U.S. rule” from encroaching on farmers, ranchers, and businesses.