Preserving Wetlands: It’s Complicated

Edmund Muskie from Maine introduced the package of legislation commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) t to the US Senate in 1971. The bill, actually 240 pages of amendments to previous legislation, passed by a comfortable margin in the Senate and the House of Representatives but stalled in the White House when Richard Nixon exercised his right of presidential veto.

As a rule, Nixon did not oppose investing in the environment.  His administration created the Environmental Protection Agency the previous year and passed endangered species legislation in his first term. In defending his veto, he cited financial concerns, specifically the risk of inflation if he approved the $25 billion budget that Congress requested.

Nixon was defiant in the face of certainty that congress would override his veto.  “I have nailed my colors to the mast on this issue” he declared, “let the political winds blow where they may.” History may not be kind to Richard Millhouse Nixon, but there is no denying his eloquent command of the English language and his flair for a colorful phrase, qualities that have been beyond the reach of many White House residents.

As predicted, Senator Muskie was able to round up enough votes to override the veto and this landmark environmental legislation thus became the law of the land in 1972.

Amended in 1989, the updated bill continues to provide fundamental protection for all of America’s water resources while serving as a topic of discussion and a point of contention.

The primary focus of the CWA, as empowered by EPA enforcement, is to prevent point source pollution – contaminants flushed directly into water bodies. As you might expect, many who would protect the environment feel the rules are too lenient, while some who wish to exploit natural resources for personal gain through commerce or agriculture contend the regulations are too restrictive and “bad for business”.

Regardless of where you stand on that issue, you have to admit that the EPA has enabled some impressive results through restoration funding.  Within our watershed, our good friends at West Michigan Regional Shoreline Development Commission (WMSRDC) have leveraged EPA support to improve the quality of Muskegon Lake and are closing in on a milestone event: seeing the lake officially removed as an Area of Concern following decades of abuse.

On the other hand, a frequent criticism involves lack of adequate protection for wetlands although the bill devotes a section to wetlands and does provide an all-inclusive definition:

What is a Wetland

“Wetlands are areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal conditions do support a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas” – Section 404 0f the Clean Water Act

The same section of the bill prohibits dumping dredge or fill material directly into designated wetlands but fails to address wetland draining. Historically, when commodity prices have been relatively high, farmers felt pressure to maximize the production of their entire acreage including any land that was too wet to plow. Draining was an easy solution without apparent sanctions.

As a result, in the lower 48 states original wetland acreage has diminished by over 50%. Of this number, 87% was lost to agricultural conversion. The long-term impact on the environment has been devastating because of the critical roles wetlands play:

  • They act as Nature’s filter, removing sediment and nutrients to improve and protect water quality
  • They provide habitat including food and cover for migratory birds and other wildlife
  • They provide water storage which contributes to flood retention and groundwater recharge
  • They are often a haven for threatened and endangered species
  • Most would agree they are aesthetically pleasing.

The situation in Michigan mirrors the national numbers although it is worth noting that by far the greatest wetland loss occurred in the southeastern part of the state with many counties experiencing over 80%.  Monroe and Wayne Counties top the list with over 90% loss

Swamp Buster

In 1985, the latest version of the US Farm Bill funded by the US Department of Agriculture provided the first effective legislation focused on wetland protection and restoration through a program referred to as “Swamp Buster”.

Officially known as The Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetland Conservation Compliance Provisions, the program employs indirect sanctions to restrict conversion and encourage restoration of wetlands.

In general, the Farm Bill traditionally features programs that provide cash incentives to farmers based on compliance with environmentally friendly farming practices.  Starting in 1985, violation of Swamp Buster provisions – typically converting a wetland for agricultural production – automatically results in loss of these benefits. To encourage wetland restoration, farm operators can recoup program benefits if a converted wetland is restored or mitigated.  Wetland mitigation is a process by which wetland acreage on public or private land can be purchased to replace the original property.

It seems to be working. The wetland conservation provisions have sharply reduced wetland conversions for agricultural uses, from 235,000 acres per year before 1985 to 27,000 acres per year from 1992 through 1997.

Compliance with federal law in the area of wetland restoration is still a complicated process. Reading from a USDA FAQ document :

  1. What are the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) and Wetland Conservation (WC) provisions?


  1. HELC requires persons, in order to receive certain USDA benefits, to use a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) approved conservation plan if they plant an agricultural commodity, defined by USDA as an annually tilled crop or sugarcane, on fields determined to be highly erodible. WC makes producers ineligible for certain USDA benefits if they produce an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland, defined by USDA as an annually tilled crop or sugarcane, or make such production possible.


That seems fairly straightforward until you consider it is the first question and answer in a 15 page document with over 90 questions divided into 9 categories.  Fortunately, there are resources readily available to move the process forward.

Jennifer Taylor, the district conservationist in Mecosta County, works for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the US Department of Agriculture and is the resident authority on all matters relating to the farm bill. Jennifer operates out of the Big Rapids USDA field office and if you are a resident of Mecosta County, she is the first person to see for advice and support. People who live outside of Mecosta County should visit their local USDA field office.

Recently, a non-profit organization, the Michigan Municipal Wetland Alliance (MMWA) has been actively building relationships with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and NRCS to address swamp buster regulations.  The goal is to assist agricultural producers who are out of compliance by providing technical assistance as well as hands on support from the planning phase to the successful conclusion of a wetlands restoration project.

A finished project is a beautiful thing to behold. The photos accompanying this article (courtesy Patricia Tice Jarrett) represent a restored wetland within the Muskegon River Watershed near Evart.  Over the past two years DNR field technicians worked hand in hand in hand with the landowner to remove tile drains, fill in drainage ditches and plant trees. The results are spectacular.

For more information on the complexities of wetland regulations kindly visit the USDA or EPA websites