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Published May 08, 2010, 11:20 PM

Q AND A: Program reopens to help farmers, ranchers dealing with Devils Lake

Farmers and ranchers in the Devils Lake Basin who have land inundated by flooding could be eligible for some financial relief, after last week’s U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to reopen the Wetland Reserve Program to farmers in the Prairie Pothole Region.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

Farmers and ranchers in the Devils Lake Basin who have land inundated by flooding could be eligible for some financial relief, after last week’s U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to reopen the Wetland Reserve Program to farmers in the Prairie Pothole Region.

What it means is that many farmers and ranchers who saw their land swallowed up by the natural overflow of closed basin lakes, such as Devils Lake and Stump Lake, can apply to recoup damages under the WRP. USDA had suspended issuing contracts under the WRP after questions of state interest in inundated land were raised by title insurance com-panies.

Herald Staff Writer Kevin Bonham spoke with Chris Nelson, area resource conservationist with the Devils Lake area office of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, about how the program works and how it might affect area farmers and ranchers. This is an edited version of their conversation.

Q. How much will the program help area farmers with land under water?

A. NRCS in North Dakota is excited to come to a resolution in regard to the Wetland Re-serve Program eligibility of the land under Devils Lake. The (agreement) will allow the land-owners inundated with Devils Lake water to be eligible for the program. Owners of land under Devils Lake water that is not considered deep water habitat (6.5 feet or less) will be eligible.

Q. Can you explain briefly how the program works?

A. Landowners may voluntarily sign an application under the Flooded Land Provision of WRP under the 2008 Farm Bill for lands under the lake that are 6.5 feet deep or less. The 2008 Farm Bill through WRP does contain language to consider cropland or grassland that was used for agricultural production before flooding from the natural overflow of a closed basin lake or pothole, as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture secre-tary. The land and producer will have to meet eligibility and compete in a ranking system before being accepted. If the applicant is selected for funding, he/she will be made an offer per acre and will make the decision to pursue the 30-year easement acquisition or not.

Q. Why was it halted and when?

A. During the first sign-up with the 2008 Farm Bill revisions, North Dakota NRCS in 2009 started approving flooded land WRP applications that had land under the Devils Lake. Delineating the boundaries of fluctuating bodies of water is challenging, leaving uncertain-ties for ascertaining title to property. Before acquiring and easement under WRP, NRCS needs to ensure that the title is legally sufficient and uncertainties as to the title are re-solved. Lands that are submerged by navigable waters are owned by the state, according to State Century Code.

Q. How much land are we talking about that might be eligible?

A. Land under the lake will have to be less than 6.5 feet deep to be eligible. According to the flood elevations, at this time, approximately 50,000 acres will be eligible.

Q. Does land have to be totally submerged, or just unfarmable?

A. Under this Flooded Land Provision, the water on the land must be located in the Prairie Pothole Region, which includes the Devils Lake Basin, 6.5 feet deep or less, 20 contigu-ous acres and have hydric soils. The land may be upland or wetland areas, cropped or not cropped and been used for agricultural production prior to flooding.

Q.??How much crop/pasture land is under water in the Devils Lake Basin?

A. Devils Lake covers about 160,000 acres. In 1993, the lake level was about 1,423 and covered approximately 45,000 acres. So we would be estimating approximately 115,000 acres is under water that is considered crop, pasture, hayland or other lands.

Q. How much land is in the WRP now and for how long?

A. NRCS may move forward with the preapproved 2009 and 2010 WRP Flooded Land Provision applications that are affected by the rising Devils Lake. In 2009, more than 6,600 acres is preapproved and more than 2,500 acres in 2010.

Q. Is that a direct result of the past 17 years of flooding?

A. The wet cycle and cool summers with the above-average rainfall events have signifi-cantly affected the farmers and ranchers in the eastern portion of North Dakota.

Q. Does it stay in the program for a certain number of years or until it dries up and no longer is considered wetlands?

A. Once the landowner elects to continue and the easement is perfected, the duration for the easement is 30 years, regardless of the lake elevation.

Q. Are there other NRCS or related programs that can help farmers who have lost acreage to flooding?

A. Landowners that have been affected by rising waters and that are not impacted directly by Devils Lake may also be eligible under the regular provisions of WRP. North Dakota NRCS accepts applications continually throughout the year.

The focus of WRP is to restore, enhance and protect existing wetlands that may have been degraded by sedimentation, or wetlands drained prior to the 1985 Swampbuster regulations in USDA programs.

Landowner that are interested in getting more information on WRP or USDA programs should contact their local NRCS office for more information.

The Devils Lake office of the NRCS may be contacted at (701) 662-7967, ext. 5.

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