Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: The Clean Water Rule: Only Part of the Strategy for Wetland Protection

By Jeanne Christie

Since the SWANCC Supreme Court  Decision in 2001, a great deal of the Association of State Wetland Manager’s  expertise has been directed to helping states and others understand changes to Clean Water Act jurisdiction and the program and policy implications of those changes.  After SWANCC, there was Carabell/Rapanos followed by proposed legislation, followed by proposed guidance and most recently the proposed and now final Clean Water Rule.

epa061915The protection provided to wetlands by the Clean Water Act was diminished significantly by the SWANCC Supreme Court decision in 2001.  Millions of acres of wetlands were no longer subject to jurisdiction and with it the requirement to get a permit to dredge and fill a wetland.  The Carabell/Rapanos Supreme Court decision further weakened wetland protection. The Clean Water Rule would return Clean Water Act jurisdiction to a portion of the wetlands that were under Clean Water Act jurisdiction prior to SWANCC, but not to many of them. This is disappointing given that the role of wetlands in protecting water quality, supporting biodiversity, attenuating floods, etc. is well documented.  The consequences of losing wetlands on the landscape translate into a variety of problems and increased risks for people, plants and wildlife.   However, the content of the new Clean Water Rule is not unexpected given the constraints on federal protection that resulted from the Supreme Court decisions.

Protection of wetlands under federal and state law is very important.  ASWM will continue to be very engaged in this area of public policy.  Ultimately however, federal and state regulations only slow destruction of wetland resources, they do not stop it.  Many activities such as wetland drainage are not subject to the Clean Water Act or state regulatory programs.  In addition; even when a permit is required, only a handful of dredge and fill permits are denied.  The bottom line is that as long as people believe that they will benefit more from destroying a wetland than keeping it, wetland losses are likely to continue.

So while many interest groups are focused on the debate over the merits of the new Clean Water Rule and whether the agencies will implement it or Congress will stop it: there are some very interesting events occurring in other areas of public policy.   Over time these may translate into a different public and private landowner ethic about the importance of wetlands and provide greater support for protecting these resources.

For example there is increasing recognition worldwide that wetlands can play a critical role in reducing threats to human health and safety from extreme weather events  See: Disaster Risk Reduction, Wetlands Do Triple Duty in a Changing Climate  and Downstream Voices: Wetland Solutions to Reducing Disaster Risk

On a more local level, researchers in the Danube River watershed In Europe, found that wetland and floodplain loss has led to an increase in extreme weather events such as drought and flooding and efforts are underway to reverse those trends by restoring and protecting wetlands and floodplains.

In the United States an increasing number of studies quantify the ability of wetlands, natural and manmade, to reduce pollution from agriculture.

Manmade wetlands can help reduce agricultural fertilizer pollution by up to 50%

Controlled drainage and wetlands to reduce agricultural pollution: a lysimetric study

Ability of Restored  Wetlands to Reduce Nitrogen and Phosphorus Concentrations in Agricultural Drainage Water

This kind of research and problem solving is critical since, according to the 2004 National Water quality Inventory: Report to Congress, agriculture is one of the leading sources of impairment to streams in the United States.

figure3epa061915And increasingly there are a variety of tools, publications and models available that describe specific practices to manage and conserve wetlands to deliver the services wetlands are known to provide.  Just this week a new report: Living Shorelines, from Barriers to Opportunities was published which includes a suite of techniques that offer property owners the opportunity to protect and restore their shoreline using more naturally-occurring systems like salt marsh and oyster reefs while also providing benefits to bays and estuaries.

There are many, many more publications like this available.

And finally, there are new and unexpected parties that may have an influential role in shaping the public’s perception about the importance of the natural environment, including wetlands.

Release of encyclical reveals pope’s deep dive into climate science

To read the full encyclical text, go here.

As recognition of wetlands restoration, protection and management as a practical tool for addressing a variety of threats to human population increases, then voluntary actions undertaken by people to protect and conserve and restore wetlands are likely to increase as well.  However, the more wetlands that are destroyed in the interim, the more efforts to protect human lives and property will cost.  So both are needed: federal and state regulatory programs that require permits to alter wetlands and the application of new practices to protect, conserve and restore wetlands to protect people, the economy and the environment.

wetlands619154The alternative is more stories like these

Tides Turn U.S. Yards to Wetlands as Warming Takes Toll

Disappearing Groundwater: An Unrealized Threat to Our Future 

Ocean ‘dead zones’ a growing disaster for fish 

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