Agriculture: Land Use

Agricultural operations sometimes involve activities that are regulated by laws designed to protect water supplies, threatened or endangered plants and animals, or wetland areas. Click on the topics below for information about land use restrictions and incentive programs that could affect your business.

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Dredge and fill activities

The Clean Water Act (CWA) sets the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants to waters of the United States. Section 404 of the CWA establishes a program to regulate the discharge of dredged and fill material into waters of the United States, including wetlands.

The Clean Water Rule and Waters of the U.S. 


Wetlands feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution, and provide fish and wildlife habitat. Wetlands are also economic drivers because of their key role in fishing, hunting, agriculture and recreation.

For regulatory purposes under the Clean Water Act, the term wetlands means:

"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."

Wetlands vary widely because of regional and local differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation, and other factors, including human disturbance.

Farmers who own or manage wetlands are directly affected by two important federal programs:
  • Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which requires individuals to obtain a permit before discharging dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, including most wetlands; 
  • Swampbuster provisions of the Food Security Act withholds certain federal farm program benefits from farmers who convert or modify wetlands.
Together, these two programs have helped to reduce the rate at which wetlands are converted to agriculture and other uses.
Similar to the Section 404 program, the Swampbuster program generally allows the continuation of most farming practices so long as wetlands are not converted or wetland drainage increased. Certain activities such as clearing, draining, or otherwise converting a wetland are activities addressed by the Swampbuster program. The program discourages farmers from altering wetlands by withholding Federal farm program benefits from any person who:
  • plants an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland that was converted by drainage, dredging, leveling, or any other means
  • converts a wetland for the purpose of or to make agricultural commodity production possible
Agricultural establishments and other agribusinesses should check with the:
  • Local Army Corps of Engineers office if they have questions regarding whether ongoing or planned activities in wetlands are regulated under the Clean Water Act Section 404 program. 
  • Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) before clearing, draining, or manipulating any wet areas to make sure their eligibility for farm benefits is maintained.

More Information from EPA

Wetlands Program
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Information from USDA

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Water Use

According to United States Geological Survey (USGS) water use data, agricultural irrigation accounts for approximately one-third of all water withdrawn in the U.S. on a daily basis. As a major water consumer, agriculture practices play a significant role in the availability and cleanliness of a region’s water supply for the ecosystems, towns, and individuals that depend on it.

More Information from EPA

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Source Water and Well Head Protection

Land use / land acquisition

Purchased land or conservation easements can serve as a protection zone near the drinking water source. Public water systems are eligible for loans from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for this purpose. Local land trusts, community groups, or others should work cooperatively with local water suppliers to identifying properties that qualify for the funding or offer their expertise in negotiating acquisitions from willing sellers. Such partnerships can complement the ongoing work of organizations to preserve parts of a watershed or ground water area for other purposes.

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Endangered Species Protection

The goal of EPA's Endangered Species Protection Program (ESPP) is to carry out EPA’s responsibilities under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, without placing unnecessary burden on agriculture and other pesticide users.

More Information from EPA

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