WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department is paying landowners to conserve wetlands but failing to monitor the results, investigators warn in a new report.
One result 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 percent 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 eight 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 where the Agriculture Department will share wetlands restoration costs. The Agriculture Department spends more than $225 million a year on the program, newly reauthorized in a farm bill passed this year.
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. Investigators preparing the new report did not closely examine easements south of Sacramento.
In the Sacramento Valley, investigators discovered a "permanent structure" on two supposedly protected wetlands and trash on a third site. The problems were even more pronounced elsewhere. In Arkansas, investigators found concrete building debris dumped on one wetlands site, and a permanent deer blind built on another. In Louisiana, they uncovered an abandoned boat, and on a Missouri wetland parcel they found a tangle of rusty pipes.
The Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service further promised in writing that the specific easement violations found by investigators "will be addressed" by Oct. 1. Agency officials could not be reached to comment Friday afternoon.
The trashed wetlands identified by investigators are only a small portion of the 1.9 million acres currently enrolled nationwide in the Wetlands Reserve Program. This includes nearly 100,000 acres in California enrolled since the program began in 1992.
The new farm bill enacted this year authorizes an additional 185,000 acres to be enrolled annually, for a maximum of 3 million acres nationwide. The previous national limit was 2.2 million acres
State officials say the easements have already "surged beyond their ability" to watch closely.
"Since (the Agriculture Department) links employee performance to the number of new acres enrolled, states have focused on acquiring new easements, regardless of the staff resources available to monitor them," investigators stated.