Central Valley

Neglect of state's wetlands revealed

WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department is paying landowners to conserve wetlands but failing to monitor the results, investigators warn in a new report.One consequence arose in the Sacramento Valley, where investigators uncovered trash piled up on property for which the Agriculture Department had purchased a conservation easement.

A manpower shortage may be part of the problem.

Officials "were not able to reasonably monitor an increasingly large number of ... easements on an annual basis with the resources available to them," the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General noted.

In California, for instance, investigators sampled 25 conservation easements funded through the Wetlands Reserve Program. The easements are supposed to be monitored annually for violations, which could include crop growing, dumping trash or construction.

But investigators found only one of the 25 California parcels had received the required annual monitoring. The overlooked easements included parcels in Yolo, Colusa and Siskiyou counties.

Nor was California alone. Investigators determined that 88% of the wetlands reserve easements reviewed in five states did not receive the required annual monitoring.

The consequences can turn ugly.

"In one case, we found substantial dumping of hazardous debris, which destroyed about 8 acres of restoration," the investigators noted in the report quietly made public Tuesday.

In response, Agriculture Department officials have vowed to improve monitoring -- including use of high-resolution aerial photography and a remote-sensing specialist.

By next year, officials say, they will have aerial photographs of all wetlands easements, which can be checked against new photos taken each year.

The Wetlands Reserve Program pays landowners for a 30-year easement, a permanent easement or for a 10-year contract under which the Agriculture Department shares wetlands restoration costs. The Agriculture Department spends more than $225 million a year on the program.

Farmers, lawmakers and environmentalists have all embraced it as a way to protect valuable wetlands while steering more money to rural areas.

"I think we're going to see it become a more popular option, because they are bumping up the spending," noted Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

In Fresno County through 2006, seven wetlands contracts had been signed covering 7,231 acres, while in Merced County 17 contracts had been signed protecting 5,295 acres.