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CREP program puts focus on wetlands

CREP wetland

This CREP wetland was built as a demonstration by the Iowa Land Improvement Land Contractors Association.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, also known as CREP, has been around for a long time. But it is being used more and more.

The federal program, which is designed to be used in partnership with state conservation efforts, is used in different ways in different states, according to Curt Goettsch, chief conservation specialist with the USDA Farm Service Agency in Iowa.

In Iowa the program is used primarily as part of a larger water quality effort. Farmers work with FSA and the state, generally using CREP to build wetlands aimed at reducing nitrogen runoff, he said.

While many farmers use state or federal funding to build saturated buffers or bioreactors, CREP wetlands are also part of the picture with more and more of them being built in recent years.

“They really offer the best bang for our buck,” Goettsch says. “We’re really getting a lot for our money.”

And that is despite the fact that a CREP wetland can be a long and expensive project.

Building a wetland can take 18 to 24 months, according to Jake Hansen, Water Resources Bureau Chief at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. That time frame includes designing a wetland, getting easements, taking care of the permitting, and building the project. The total cost can be as much as $400,000 to $500,000.

But for many farmers, that cost is borne by various government programs. That may sound expensive to some taxpayers, but Goettsch points out that while a buffer may only be in place a few years, a large wetland which may drain 1,000 or more acres might be in place for over a century.

Iowa authorities have worked with farmers to build 116 wetlands in recent years. Another 60 are either under contract or in design. Not all of those included CREP money, but the state completed its 100th CREP wetland in 2021.

An average one might include a pool or pond of about 10 or 11 acres and perhaps 30 acres of wetlands. But it could drain 1,200 acres.

In other parts of the country, the CREP program may be used differently, Goettsch says. For example, riparian buffers are sometimes installed using the CREP program in some East Coast states.

The Midwest has put an emphasis on water quality in the past decade and CREP is a part of the puzzle for funding that effort. After several years of debate, the Iowa state legislature passed Senate File 512 in 2018 and that legislation included long-term water quality funding. While many environmental and agricultural groups have continued to argue that the funding provided by 512 is not enough and that the state needs to increase funding levels, that legislation did gradually ramp up to providing $15 million per year for water quality efforts. Having that amount of money guaranteed over the long term is helpful, Hansen says.

Another thing that is helpful, Goettsch says, is that researchers at Iowa State University are monitoring many of these projects so they know exactly what is going into and coming out of the wetlands.

“There’s great science behind it,” Goettsch says.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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