This photo from early 2013 shows a field where drain tile has recently been installed.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service currently has more backlogged wetland determination requests in South Dakota than in any other state in the Midwest, the Capital Journal has discovered.

A wetland determination helps producers know where wetlands are located so they can make plans to tile, or drain, an area without losing eligibility to participate in federal farm programs.

With more than 2,400 requests for certified wetland determinations this year alone, in addition to previously filed requests, the current backlog is 3,388, according to NRCS data. Some requests date as far back as 2011. The NRCS is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wetland drainage, or tiling, is the process of removing excess water from soil.

The number of wetland determination requests has increased in recent years, records indicate. Since 2007, when the NRCS began tracking requests in South Dakota, the number has steadily climbed. The number peaked in South Dakota in 2012, when farmers filed 3,597. As of mid-October this year, determinations requests had fallen to 2,440. The NRCS has been able to complete 2,242.  

The increase in requests goes beyond South Dakota. A record number were filed in 2012 throughout the Midwest, when Minnesota received 11,926, more than those made in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois combined. Despite the high volume of requests that year, Minnesota was able to complete 8,662.    

But South Dakota now leads the region in unprocessed or backlogged requests. As of Sept. 1, South Dakota had more unfulfilled wetland determination requests than any other state in the Midwest. Minnesota had 2,834 and North Dakota had 1,203 unprocessed requests.  

“It would take us a year to a year and a half to work through the backlog, with no new requests coming in,” according to Gerald Jasmer, state resource conservationist for NRCS.

Due to staff reductions and ongoing budgetary restrictions, the NRCS has struggled to address the backlog. Although Jasmer’s office was given additional federal funding in 2012, they did not receive the same funding for 2013.

In addition, Jasmer said wetland determinations are not the top priority for his office. “The core mission of the NRCS is to help people do voluntary conservation work on their lands,” Jasmer said. Such work includes providing assistance to producers interested in improving crop rotation or determining proper locations for water development on their land.  

Jasmer remains optimistic his office can work through the backlog. He cited technological advances such as aerial photography, which allow the NRCS to continue to process requests during the winter, although the job becomes more difficult as snow covers land-based signatures.

Along with aerial technology, the South Dakota office has begun using outside consultants to help expedite the process, Jasmer added. Private consultants processed 500 requests last year alone, he explained, helping reduce the number of pending requests. “Although their involvement has helped,” Jasmer said, “we don’t just rubber stamp what the consultant provides.”  

Even with the addition of outside consultants, as the number of backlogged requests continues to climb, so too has frustration among landowners. “Farmers want to follow the rules,” said Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers. “They just need to know what the rules are.”

The rules to which Richardson refers are the conservation compliance requirements farmers must meet in order to continue to participate in USDA farm programs. In order to participate in such programs, farmers need updated wetland determination maps, Richardson explained.

With advances in technology and agriculture commodity prices hitting record levels over the past five years, the number of determination requests isn’t that surprising, said Mark Norton, the hunting access and Farm Bill coordinator for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. “Farmers are trying to make the most of their tillable acres,” Norton explained.

Other factors for the increased number of requests include eroding federal wetland protections and an extended wet period, according to government affairs representative Eric Lindstrom of Ducks Unlimited. “It has been wet in the last few years,” Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom expressed concern over the increased requests. “Some of this seems a little short-sighted,” he said, noting the cycles of drought and deluge the Dakotas have historically gone through.  

According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, 54 percent of all wetlands in the United States had been drained or filled for developmental or agricultural purposes by 1984.

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