Wetland Soils in the U.S.

Wetland Environments
Richard O. Sleezer

Table of Contents
Wetlands delineation Food Security Act
Swampbuster Hydric soil
Further information

Wetlands delineation

The current and jointly accepted definition of wetlands used by the U.S. Corps of Engineers (CE), the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is:

Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas. (p. 12, Environmental Laboratory. 1987. Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual, Technical Report Y-87-1, US Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, MS, which can be viewed at the web sites listed below).

Under this definition there are three primary “Diagnostic environmental characteristics” that are used to determine if an area is a wetland or not.

  1. Vegetation - more specifically hydrophytic vegetation which is capable of growing, competing, and reproducing in saturated soils which produce/contain/maintain anaerobic conditions.

  2. Soil - more specifically hydric soils which are defined as soils that are “…saturated, flooded, or ponded long enough during the growing season to develop anaerobic conditions that favor the growth and regeneration of hydrophytic vegetation..” (Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual, see above.

  3. Hydrology - more specifically, “The area is inundated either permanently or periodically at mean water depths <6.6 ft [2 m], or the soil is saturated to the surface at some time during the growing season of the prevalent vegetation.” (Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual, see above)

Food Security Act of 1985

Chapter 58 of the Food Security Act of 1985 (FSA 1985) is entitled Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation and Reserve Program. In subchapter III Wetland Conservation, there are two important provisions to our study of wet/hydric soils. Section 3821 essentially states that individuals draining wetlands after December 1985 will not be eligible for many farm and loan programs of the USDA. This is the so-called Swampbuster provision of FSA 1985 (see below).

Section 3822 deals with the delineation of wetlands, resulting wetland delineation maps, and other issues such as the appeal process if a land owner does not feel that features delineated as wetlands on their farms are actually wetlands. FSA 1985 is significant because it is the basis for much study of the wetlands and hydric soils within the United States by USDA, NRCS, and many others in the past two decades. It is also the reason that most states have at least one wetland soil scientist. Following are excerpts from the U.S. House of Representatives, agriculture.house.gov website.

P.L. 99-198 (December 23, 1985), a 5-year omnibus farm bill, allowed lower commodity price and income supports and established a dairy herd buyout program. Changes were made in a variety of other USDA programs. Several enduring conservation program were created, including sodbuster, swampbuster, and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Shortly after enactment, the Technical Corrections to Food Security Act of 1985 Amendments (P.L. 99-253, February 28, 1986) gave USDA discretion to require cross-compliance for wheat and feed grains instead of mandating them, changed acreage base calculations, and specified election procedures for local Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation committees.

Technical changes and other modifications were enacted by the Food Security Improvements Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-260, March 20, 1986), including limiting the non-program crops that could be planted under the 50/92 provision, permitting haying and grazing on diverted wheat and feed grain acreage for a limited period in regions of distress, and increasing deductions taken from the price of milk received by producers to fund the dairy termination program (also called the whole herd buyout) program. Again in 1986, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (P.L. 99-509) made changes in the 1985 Act requiring advance deficiency payments to be made to producers of 1987 wheat, feed grains, upland cotton, and rice crops at a minimum of 40% for wheat and feed grains and 30% for rice and upland cotton.

The 1985 Act also amended the Farm Credit Act of 1971. Further commodity program changes were made in the FY1987 agricultural appropriations bill (P.L. 99-591, October 30, 1986). In addition to its funding provisions, P.L. 99-591 set the annual payment limitation at $50,000 per person for deficiency and paid land diversion payments, and included money, resource adjustment (excluding land diversion), disaster, and Findley payments under a $250,000 aggregate payment limitation. Once again, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 (P.L. 100-203) not only set the 1988 fiscal year budget for agriculture and all federal agencies, but also set target prices for 1988 and 1989 program crops, established loan rates for program and non-program crops, and required a voluntary paid land diversion for feed grains. P.L. 100-203 further defined who could receive farm program payments by defining a "person" in terms of payment limitations.


A provision of the Food Security Act of 1985 that discourages the conversion of wetlands to cropland use. Producers converting a wetland area to cropland lose eligibility for several federal farm program benefits. Benefits are lost from when water levels are lowered to facilitate agricultural production until they have been restored. Several types of wetlands and wetlands in specified situations are exempt. Exceptions include conversions that began before December 23, 1985, conversions of wetlands that had been created artificially, crop production on wetlands that became dry through drought, and conversions that USDA has determined have minimal effect on wetland values. Swampbuster provisions were amended in the FAIR Act of 1996 to provide greater flexibility for producers and landowners.

Wetlands and hydric soil

Wetlands are areas of predominantly hydric soils that can support a prevalence of water-loving plants, known as hydrophitic vegetation. Transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems are wetlands typified by a water table at or near the surface, or the land is covered by shallow water at least part of the year. Types of wetlands are distinguished by water patterns (the frequency and length of flooding) and location in relation to upland areas and water bodies. Wetlands perform many functions including wildlife and fish habitat, storage and conveyance of flood waters, sediment and pollution control, and recreation. Under the swampbuster program, landowners may produce crops in these areas, but only if the water patterns, or hydrology, in the wetland area is not altered and any woody vegetation is not removed.

Soil that, in its undrained state, is flooded long enough during a growing season to develop anaerobic conditions that support the growth and regeneration of hydrophytic vegetation (plants specialized to grow in water or in soil too waterlogged for most plants to survive). This term is part of the legal definition of a wetland included in the Food Security Act of 1985. The Natural Resources Conservation Service maintains a national list of hydric soils.

Further information

Return to wetlands syllabus.

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