That was my reaction when I read USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s claim that it will create jobs with $145 million in stimulus money by using it to enroll frequently flooded farmland in conservation easements.
Sure, conservation creates some jobs -- somebody will get paid to plant trees and grass. But I bet that in the long run, the floodplain program will result in less business activity, not more. Just look at what has happened in the Dakotas with the Conservation Reserve Program.
Farm suppliers sold less fertilizer. Elevators handled less grain. Implement dealers sold fewer drills. Young farmers had a harder time finding land to rent. Competing with the government proved to be impossible.
Unless downstream flood damages are figured into the equation, I don’t see how taking farmland out of production -- even if floods frequently -- is a good economic strategy. River bottom land is often so productive that occasional flooding is a good trade off. Flooding is even why some river bottoms are so productive. When water recede after a flood, it leaves rich silt behind.
What’s the government going to do with the river bottom land once it has been restored? Just let it sit there? Create federal parks? It isn’t going to generate any new money. Hunters willl argue that because tax dollars were used to restore the land they ought to have free access to it.
“The restored floodplain will generate many public benefits,” the USDA announcement said, “such as increased flood protection, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, improved water quality, and a reduced need for future public disaster assistance. Other benefits include reduced energy consumption when certain agricultural activities and practices are eliminated and increased carbon sequestration as permanent vegetative cover is re-established.”
USDA ought to have added a disclaimer, “This program will take land out production that would otherwise be used to support farm families and grow food, fiber and fuel.”
In the future, officials should look for projects that increase food supplies, farm income and build up the soil -- all at the same time.
Incentives for planting cover crops, creating urban community gardens, converting to no-till, developing irrigation and installing tile drainage make more sense to me.
Learn more about the floodplain program at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/ewp/Floodplain/index.html.
For information about floodplain easements in South Dakota, contact Sara Thompson at 605-352-1281.