Prior converted croplands

Proposals to convert croplands that were once wetlands to a non-agricultural use requires our approval. Under the Federal Food Safety Act, these agricultural lands cultivated prior to Dec. 23, 1985, are deemed a "prior converted cropland" (PCC).

Why are PCC wetlands subject to regulation?

In the past, wetlands that were drained and cultivated for agriculture were often exempt from federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. This was based on the belief that these wetlands had been so altered they no longer provided important wetland functions. In Washington, however, PCC wetlands perform many of the same important ecological functions as other wetlands, including:

  • Recharging streams and aquifers
  • Storing flood waters
  • Filtering pollutants from water
  • Providing wildlife habitat

In some cases, PCC wetlands have been significantly altered so they provide only minimal functions. However, in many cases, PCC wetlands provide important hydrologic functions and may provide significant wildlife habitat.

What are prior converted croplands?

For the purpose of implementing the federal Food Security Act, the term prior converted croplands refers to wetlands that were converted from a non-agricultural use to production of a commodity crop prior to Dec. 23, 1985.

In other words, PCCs are wetlands that were drained, dredged, filled, leveled, or otherwise manipulated, including the removal of woody vegetation, to enable production of an agricultural commodity.

To be considered a PCC, the area:

  • Must have had an agricultural commodity planted or produced at least once prior to Dec. 23, 1985. After 1985, these sites must continue to be in active agricultural use. This means a commodity crop that requires annual tilling must be produced at least once every five years.
  • Must not have standing water present for more than 14 consecutive days during the growing season. If an agricultural site has standing water for 14 consecutive days or more, it would be considered a "farmed wetland." Farmed wetlands meet the wetland hydrology criterion. If a wetland was drained before Dec. 23, 1985, but wetland characteristics remain and it has surface ponding for 14 or more consecutive days in the growing season, it is a "farmed wetland" and only the original scope and effect of the drainage of the affected land can be maintained. Additional modifications may require federal Clean Water Act permitting and state authorization. Many farmed areas in valleys flood throughout the winter and would not be considered PCC. Therefore, it is important to document surface water levels throughout the year (i.e., determining the hydro-period during the dry season alone is not adequate).

Conversions subject to local, state, & federal criteria

While many PCC areas have been extensively manipulated and drained, and some may no longer be wetlands, a PCC might meet the federal and state wetland hydrology criteria (refer to the federal delineation manual and regional supplements).

If the land changes to non-agricultural use, or is abandoned, a PCC area may be regulated under federal, state, or local laws. Landowners who intend to develop their land or conduct an activity that precludes use of the land for continued agricultural production should contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speak with us, and connect with their city or county government to determine if the land meets the criteria for jurisdictional wetlands.

Even if not abandoned, PCC wetlands that meet the state’s wetland delineation criteria, are still regulated under the state’s Water Pollution Control Act, Shoreline Management Act, and Growth Management Act.

Conversion of a PCC wetland to non-agricultural use requires state and local approval.

Delineating wetlands on agricultural lands

In 1994, the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Interior, Army and the EPA entered into a Memorandum of Agreement, Guidance on Conducting Wetland Determinations for the Food Security Act (FSA) and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The agreement was developed to streamline the wetland delineation process on agricultural lands, promote consistency between the federal Clean Water and Food Security acts, and provide predictability and simplification for U.S. Department of Agriculture program participants.

In January 2005, both the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) withdrew from the agreement. It was then replaced by the Joint Guidance on Conducting Wetland Delineations for the Food Security Act of 1985 and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (February 2005).

This guidance addresses NRCS' responsibility to performing wetland delineations to meet FSA and Corps requirements. Also see Key Points: February 28, 2005, for the rationale for withdrawing from the 1994 agreement.

The 2005 agreement states the identification of prior converted croplands made by NRCS remains valid as long as the area is devoted to an agricultural use. If the land changes to a non-agricultural use, the PCC determination is no longer applicable and a new wetland determination is required for federal Clean Water Act purposes.