USDA offers farmers chance to stop fighting flooded land

Posted October 11, 2019 at 3:17 pm

By Julie Ann Madden

Iowa area farmers and landowners met with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to learn about Emergency Watershed Program floodplain easements on Oct. 1 at the Akron Public Library.

As river flooding has continued with the most recent surge of floodwaters being in September, the (NRCS) officials of Iowa applied for federal disaster funds to purchase floodplain easements.

They have received $36 million for the Emergency Watershed Program floodplain easements, said NRCS Northwest Iowa Easement Specialist Brenda Tenold-Moretz, explaining this money will be used to purchase floodplain easements in three categories: farmland, farmland with homesteads, and acreages that received flood damage such as breached levees, fields covered with sand and debris, scour holes and water inundation.

Landowners who choose this perpetual floodplain easement for their land and/or homestead or acreage will be paid 85 percent of the land’s fair market value. In Geographic Area Rate Caps (GARC) No. 4, which includes Cherokee, Clay, Ida, Lyon, Plymouth, O’Brien, Osceola, and Sioux counties, the one-time lump sum payment has been set at $6,690 per acre for cropland, $2,448 per acre for pasture land, and $1,585 per acre for Timber and other types of land.

“GARC No. 4 has the highest rates in the state,” said Lohafer.

The floodplain easement is held between the landowner and the United States Government and is administered by NRCS staff.

The government is buying the “cropping rights,” said Tenold-Moretz. The landowner will continue to own it by fee title and have to pay its property taxes.

“The easement doesn’t make it public land — You own it, you control it,” she added.

Although the floodplain easements allow landowners to retain land ownership, they cannot do anything “agriculture for (financial)gain,” said Tenold-Moretz. They can use it for hunting and fishing and possibly “prescribed” haying and grazing if it is part of the easement’s management plan.

Landowners can also sell the land, explaining the floodplain easement stays with the land forever.

“Our goal is to restore the function of the natural floodplain,” said Tenold-Moretz. “We’re trying to let rivers flood where they want to flood.”

There will not be any levee repairs made within the floodplain easements, she said.

NRCS officials will work with the landowners to create both a restoration plan and a management plan, said Tenold-Moretz. With the floodplain easements, the NRCS will pay 100 percent of the costs to remove any structures such as farmstead buildings and irrigation systems and to remove flood damage such as sand and debris, and then restore the land to its native state through planting native grasses and forbs.

The goal of restoration is floodplain habitat restoration and habitat management with NRCS working along side landowners to create plans and assist in finding resources.

Habitat Management includes prescribed fires, weed and tree control, food plots and possibly prescribed haying and grazing. Resources may be Conservation Districts of Iowa, Pheasants Forever, Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, NRCS.

What methods the NRCS will use to restore the floodplain easement lands are still up in the air — they are still researching options, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources – Wildlife Bureau Private Lands Biologist Nick Baumgarten, who can be reached at 712-330-6932 or nick.Baumgarten@dnr.iowa.gov.

The landowner can choose to maintain the floodplain easement land or let it alone but landowners are required to maintain the floodplain easement’s noxious weeds, he said.

The NRCS will not have funding for maintenance so if a landowner wanted to continue maintenance such as prevent tree growth, it would be at their expense.

The regulations for floodplain easements are different than the rules for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land, said Tenold-Moretz. This program is also not part of the Farm Bill so there is no requirement to comply with its regulations, including Adjusted Gross Income.

Both choosing floodplain easements and maintaining the land within the easement boundaries are voluntary for the landowners.

“It’s a huge decision for people,” said Tenold-Moretz. “These easements are forever.”

There will not be a way to “buy back” these floodplain easements in the future, she noted.

In addition, the floodplain easement program is not an annual program. The last time it was offered was 2008, and it may not be offered again on these floodplain lands.

Floodplain easement funds are tied to a Federal Stafford Act Disaster Declaration and are available until the appropriation has been expended. Nationally, $435 million was appropriated to NRCS for floodplain easements. Iowa was one of 10 states to receive funding.

Landowners who had preregistered for the meeting were given maps of their lands to consider floodplain easements. Tenold-Moretz informed landowners they need to mark the area on the maps they want to have a floodplain easement and the access road to that floodplain easement as NRCS needs access to it.

Landowners must apply for floodplain easements by Friday, Oct. 18, and they must have all land information and legal documentation to NRCS District Conservationist Andrea Lohafer by Dec. 3. She is located in the Le Mars office and can be reached by calling 712-546-8858 Ext. 3 or by emailing Andrea.Lohafer@ia.usda.gov.

Even though the application is due Oct. 18, landowners may change their minds up until the NRCS officials have presented an official written offer to purchase the floodplain easement and it’s signed by both parties.

Landowners can choose their own attorneys, and attorney fees are paid 100 percent by NRCS, said Tenold-Moretz.

These floodplain easements are a long process — closings will be in June 2021 and that is when landowners will receive their lump sum payment.

Furthermore, just because a landowner wants to do this, it doesn’t mean they will get to — there is a ranking system and those lands with the highest ranking will be first offered the Agreement to Purchase Conservation Easement.

The highest priority areas are Woodbury, Monona, Harrison, Pottawattamie, Mills and Fremont counties along the Missouri River and Scott, Muscatine and Louisa counties along the Mississippi River. These counties could receive 60 percent of the $36 million.

However, she said there are some in Northwest Iowa that will have high rankings because of the extent of flood damage.

The rest of Iowa will divvy up the remaining 40 percent and Tenold-Moretz is hoping Iowa will receive more disaster funding as they were originally promised more than double that amount. The amount was originally reduced due to other disasters happening in the United States.

These monies will be spent on floodplain easement land purchases, attorney fees, structure demolition, floodplain easements’ land restoration

Tenold-Moretz noted that as of Sept. 26, they already had 124 applications on 15,189.5 acres — twice as many applications as money available.

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