Points North: Will Water Management Influence Future Farm Policy?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (Center for American Progress/Flickr)
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (Center for American Progress/Flickr)

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News reports from the Pheasant Fest show held in Minneapolis during February suggest the best days of pheasant and duck hunting in the upper Midwest are behind us. Record high prices for corn are transforming the agricultural landscape, as farmers drain wetlands and plow up grasslands in a rush to devote every available acre to producing corn. Farm policies, including taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, encourage producers to farm even marginal ground with minimal risk of failure.
                                                                                       
Particularly telling were Pheasant Fest interviews by Dave Orrick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press with Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, and Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Transcripts of the interviews are available on the newspaper’s website. When Orrick asked, "Is our farm policy really square with conservation?" Ashe replied, "No, it is not." Orrick posed the same question to Vilsack, who responded, "I don't know what you mean."
 
To be fair, Vilsack probably doesn't often get asked questions about farmland conservation. In his world, high prices and strong demand for commodities mean times are good. As U.S. Agriculture Secretary, he must contend with a toxic political climate that has stalled the Farm Bill in Congress and led to endless budgetary strife. In the interview, he pointed out that the USDA's conservation efforts are limited by Washington's fiscal realities. Still, Vilsack never acknowledged in the interview that conservation is important not only for bird hunting, but also for the overall health of our nation’s land and water.
 
Ducks and pheasants may eat corn and other grains, but cultivated ground doesn't grow birds or much of anything other than the intended crop. Game birds need habitat--grasslands and wetlands--to thrive. Without habitat, an agricultural landscape is a desert not only for game birds, but for all but the most tenacious flora and fauna. Even commonplace species may disappear.
 
Consider the plight of the American bumblebee. The Christian Science Monitor reports researchers have found this wild bee, once the most common species in the Upper Midwest, has nearly vanished from the northern portion of its range. In Illinois, a researcher recently found only half of the wild bee types—54 of 109—that had been collected and cataloged by a naturalist in 1909. Just one American bumblebee, a queen, was discovered. The drastic decline in bees is particularly troubling because they are the primary pollinators on the landscape.
 
Researchers speculate disease and parasites contributed to the bee decline, but doing so comfortably ignores the elephants in the room. A century ago, the farmland of Illinois was a patchwork of varied crops, pastures, wetlands and woodlots, all of which provided habitat for bees. Now nearly every acre is devoted to corn and soybean production and subjected to continued applications of fertilizers and pesticides. In other words, it’s become a place that takes the buzz right out of a bee.
 
Habitat loss becomes permanent when it is accompanied by drainage, as has occurred across much of the Corn Belt. Until recently, less drainage had occurred in the Dakotas, which is why those states contained a remarkable abundance of pheasants, ducks and other prairie wildlife. Now wetland drainage and drain tiling of crop land is rapidly occurring in eastern South Dakota, where conservationists say game birds—and likely other wildlife—are in sharp decline.
 
Accelerating drainage on the landscape not only eliminates habitat, but it alters the land’s ability to use and retain precipitation. This week, the Minnesota DNR announced that despite an average or above average snowpack, the spring melt will do little to alleviate existing severe drought conditions, because the melt water will run off the still-frozen ground. Instead, the DNR warns we should brace for spring flooding in the Red River Valley. It will take rainfall after the ground thaws to ease drought conditions.
 
It seems, well, unnatural that we can experience severe drought and devastating floods simultaneously. But wetland drainage and ditching removes the landscape’s mechanism to retain water and allow it to more slowly enter our waterways and replenish underground aquifers. Instead, the spring melt, once an integral part of the prairie’s ecological cycle, rushes downstream to become someone else’s problem. Catastrophic spring floods have become routine occurrences.
 
Oddly, we are finding, even in this Land of 10,000 Lakes, that we are depleting our groundwater supplies. In short, we are drawing more water out of the ground for irrigation, municipal water, ethanol production and other uses than Nature can replenish. A recent report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune notes that water shortages are already a reality in portions of southwestern Minnesota. While this region of the state is naturally dry, agricultural drainage is exacerbating the situation. Problems with metro area water supplies are anticipated within the next 20 years. The DNR reports that conflicts over groundwater use are becoming more common across the state. Ironically, Minnesota receives enough precipitation to meet its water needs and replenish groundwater supplies. The problem is too much of that precipitation is drained off the land and whisked downstream before we an opportunity to use it.
 
The average hunter may not make the link between April floods and a lack of October pheasants and ducks, but the link exists. Decades of federal farm policies designed to accommodate large scale agricultural production have altered the landscape and modified or destroyed natural functions. While these alterations have improved farm productivity and, some argue, provided low-cost food, we paid a price that can be measured by poor water quality, more soil erosion, increased flooding and a loss of wildlife.
 
Most conservationists believe farmland habitat losses are permanent. While I’m dismayed at the present rate of habitat loss and worried we’ll soon see sharp declines in the abundance of ducks, pheasants and other wildlife, I’m not sure we’ve reached the end of the line. In the future, federal farm policies and priorities may change to encourage the restoration of wetlands and grasslands. Small restorations already occur when former farmlands are acquired by wildlife agencies and converted to habitat. However, if large-scale restoration ever happens, the impetus to do so will likely be related to water management rather than wildlife habitat. After all, we can get by without pheasants, but we can’t get by without water.

Airdate: March 8, 2013


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