Kirby Roberts relishes the wildlife that flock to the restored wetlands on his property on the border of Sac and Calhoun counties in northwest Iowa. The property is an environmental haven that attracts geese, ducks, pheasants and other wildlife, says Roberts, an avid outdoorsman.

"The spring migration is phenomenal," he says.

Brent Scharn, who farms ground adjacent to Roberts’ property, ap­­preciates the water quality and drainage benefits the wetlands provide in the prairie pothole region.

"I wish more people would do this," said Scharn, a Sac County Farm Bureau member. "We’re all interested in improving water quality."

Studies show wetlands can re­­duce nitrates from water by 40 to 70 percent, says Jim Gillespie, director of the Iowa Department of Agriculture soil conservation and water quality division.

"When we look at opportunities around water quality, wetlands are a key component of that," he said. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy says some 70,000 wetlands are needed across the state to meet the strategy’s goals, Gillespie reports.

Roberts has a portion of his land enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). Another piece of the property was restored in conjunction with Iowa Agricultural Mitigation (IAM), a non-profit corporation that provides wetland mitigation credits for farmers who want to improve low-quality farmed wetlands.

IAM operates wetland mitigation banks that create credits that can be sold to farmers, providing an alternative to replacing wetland areas on a farmer’s own property or nearby land when farmed wetlands are impacted by drainage improvements or other activities.

The U.S. Department of Agri­culture’s (USDA) conservation com­pliance requires any farmer who wishes to convert or improve a wetland for crop production to offset that loss through mitigation in order to maintain eligibility for farm program benefits, either by restoring wetlands in another location or by purchasing credits.

Use of a mitigation bank re­­quires credits to be purchased from within the same watershed as the impacted farmed wetland, according to IAM. Credit prices can vary depending on service area, land values, restoration costs and other factors.

Current prices have averaged $8,000 to $10,000 per credit, said Kevin Griggs, IAM project manager. He projects costs of future credits will rise to $12,000 to $15,000 per credit.

The Natural Resources Con­servation Service (NRCS) determines the amount of credits re­­quired. Standard purchase rates are at a one-to-one ratio, Griggs said. For example, if a customer wishes to drain a 1-acre farmed wetland they would need to purchase one credit from the mitigation bank.

New mitigation bank

IAM, in conjunction with the NRCS, last week announced the opening of a new wetland mitigation bank in Hancock County. Farm Bureau pioneered Iowa’s first ag wetland mitigation bank demonstration site, completing restoration of a Franklin County site in 2003. Credits in the Farm Bureau site are sold out.

IAM has 38 wetland mitigation credits available through its Hancock County site, said Kim Perlstein, IAM executive director.

"IAM is working with other landowners with the goal of offering three additional wetland banks by the end of the year," Perlstein said.

IAM is one of 10 wetland mitigation banks nationwide that received $7 million in 2016 from NRCS to restore, create or enhance wetland ecosystems. The Iowa bank received $700,000 in NRCS funding to help cover administrative costs and pay for engineering and marketing. No NRCS funds are used to purchase wetlands.

"Wetlands are vital to the health of Iowa’s ecosystems," said Kurt Simon, Iowa NRCS state conservationist. "When functioning properly, wetlands provide many environmental benefits including improving water quality, recharging groundwater, providing flood control, cycling nutrients and maintaining critical wildlife habitat."

Farmer concerns

While wetland mitigation offers an option for farmers to improve drainage on farmed wetlands, the criteria the NRCS uses to determine the required mitigation area has some flaws from a farmer’s point of view, said Rick Robinson, Iowa Farm Bureau environmental policy advisor. The NRCS in some cases requires a greater ratio of restored wetland acres in relation to impacted farmed wetland acres. The superior habitat benefits gained from a restored wetland should, in theory, translate to a lower ratio, Robinson says. It’s important to understand this ratio when purchasing credits, he says, as it can add cost to the credit.

Farmers considering purchasing wetland mitigation credits should work with their local NRCS office to make sure the process results in a permanent status change for converted wetland acres on their farms in order to remain in compliance with USDA regulations, Robinson emphasized.

In addition, farmers need to be aware that wetlands may also fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requiring a separate evaluation process from them before some wetland improvements are allowed. The lack of coordination between the federal agencies poses an obstacle to farmers’ conservation efforts, Robinson says.