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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson November 29, 2012

Partial progress on several elements of wetlands protection

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised "full funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and fulfilling the goal of 'no net loss"; extending the swamp buster provisions of the farm bill, and amending the Clean Water Act to clarify that it protects isolated wetlands."

We aren't going to rate one portion of this promise -- "fulfilling the goal of 'no let loss."" The most recent official government data, released in October 2011, stops at 2009, which was at the beginning of Obama's term. So we can't know how well Obama has done at fulfilling the goal.

In that study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that America's wetlands declined "slightly" from 2004 to 2009, by 62,300 acres. But the trend during Obama's tenure is not clear. A July 2010 Congressional Research Service report said that while the no-net-loss goal had essentially been met, it acknowledged the wetland gains may not have necessarily made up for losses in quality.

This leaves three portions of this promise, each of which has fared differently. Here's a rundown.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act funding. This 1989 act -- a key tool for conserving wetlands -- offers funding to implement the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and a wetlands agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Here are the year-by-year funding amounts:

Fiscal year 2009: $42.6 million
Fiscal year 2010: $47.6 million
Fiscal year 2011: $37.4 million
Fiscal year 2012: $35.5 million
Fiscal year 2013 (requested): $39.4 million

In other words, Obama administration initially increased funding for the program, but the amount has now fallen for two consecutive years. The administration's request for fiscal year 2013 is for $4 million more than in fiscal year 2012, but even if that request is granted -- which is far from certain given budgetary pressures -- it's still $3 million less than the amount Obama inherited when he came into office.

Extending swamp buster provisions. The swamp buster program offers incentives for farmers to preserve wetlands on their agricultural operations. It was last reauthorized in the 2002 farm bill and expired when the current farm bill, which was passed in 2008, lapsed on Oct. 1, 2012.

The mechanism to extend this and other expired programs -- a new farm bill -- has languished in the current Congress. The outgoing "lame duck" Congress could take it up, or else it could slip to 2013 amid urgent negotiations over the "fiscal cliff."

Passing a new farm bill "is a long shot for the lame duck, but not dead yet," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Passage of a new farm bill could enable Obama to keep his pledge, but for now, the result has been the sudden expiration of a longstanding program.

Isolated wetlands provision of the Clean Water Act. The administration has made efforts in this regard but has faced resistance from congressional Republicans.

The administration supported legislation to restore legal protections to vulnerable waters, under principles several top administration officials laid out in a letter in May, 2009. The administration drafted new guidelines for identifying protected waters, which are more protective of tributary streams and some "isolated" wetlands than the policy under President George W. Bush.

However, after Republicans took control of the House following the 2010 elections, the GOP proposed legislative language to block movement in the direction the White House wanted. Obama, in turn, threatened to veto a spending bill that contained the congressional language.

The upshot is that the revised guidelines are still under review by the administration.

"The administration hasn't yet proposed, much less finalized, planned regulatory revisions to make these improvements more durable, so I wouldn't say the administration has yet kept this promise," said Jon Devine, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

With partial progress on some of these pledges, we rate the overall promise a Compromise.

Our Sources

AgriNews, "Uncertainty about enacting new farm bill continues," Nov. 28, 2012

White House, Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 2584, July 21, 2011

Email interview with Jon Devine, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nov. 27, 2012

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "Five-Year Survey Shows Wetlands Losses are Slowing, Marking Conservation Gains and Need for Continued Investment in Habitat," Oct. 6, 2011

Congressional Research Service, "Wetlands: An Overview of Issues," July 12, 2010

Email interview with Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Nov. 26, 2012

By Catharine Richert December 1, 2009

Wetlands protections get a boost

Wetland conservation was key to President Barack Obama's conservation campaign platform, and so far, he's made good on several of his pledges.
The first, to increase funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, became part of Obama's Interior Department budget. He asked for about $10 million in extra cash for the program, but Congress delivered only $2.5 million, bringing total funding to $45.6 million. That's enough to keep vital habitat intact and add more land to the conservation program, according to Ducks Unlimited, which advocated for the bill. So the program will be operating at "no net loss," as Obama promised.
Obama's second promise -- to extend the swamp buster program, which offers incentives for farmers to preserve wetlands on their agricultural operations -- has not yet been fulfilled. The program does not expire until 2012, the final year of Obama's first term.
And the last part of his promise -- to amend the Clean Water Act to clarify that it protects isolated wetlands -- is in the works. Earlier this year, a Senate committee approved a bill that would restore broad federal protections over wetlands, which have been limited by the Supreme Court. In two cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not have to regulate pollution in some wetlands because they were not considered navigable bodies of water.
So, Obama has gotten the ball rolling on several of his wetlands promises. However, an extension for the swamp buster program won't be up until 2012. And a bill to amend the Clean Water Act is still working its way through Congress. We'll keep an eye on these developments, but for now, we'll move this promise to In the Works.

Our Sources

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