Army Corps Faces Unlikely Opposition on Wetlands

Citizens debate new case for controlling rivers. Bayou Country

STYMIED by the drop-off in support for big ticket water projects in the 1970s and '80s, the Army Corps of Engineers is seeking a new role in environmental protection. "If we had these large dams to build again, we would do it differently," says Jimmy Bates, chief of the Policy Planning Division of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. "We were responsive to what the public wanted in the 1940s and '50s, where the mission was flood control. Now the mission is the environment."

One reason for the shift, Mr. Bates says, is President Bush's campaign pledge to end destruction of wetlands.

A key element of the new corps strategy is vigorous enforcement of the permitting process provided for in the Clean Water Act of 1974.

In 1989, the four agencies responsible for wetlands - the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Soil Conservation Service - developed a joint definition of wetlands to enhance the Clean Water Act's Section 404 permitting process. To be classified as wetlands, land must have "hydric" soil, showing it has been water-saturated in the past; it must support characteristic wetlands vegation; and water must come within 18 inches of the surface at l a

st seven days each year, according to the government's 1989 wetlands manual.

Under the terms of the new permitting procedure, a property owner must get permission from the corps to dig up, build on, or alter wetlands. In approving a permit, the corps mandates that proposed activities are necessary on wetlands and requires that landowners create or enhance wetlands elsewhere.

In Louisiana, this new activism has sparked resentment, particularly among the corps's traditional business allies.

By the terms of the controversial new regulations, more than 80 percent of Louisiana is considered wetlands.

"You can't put a shovel into our district without a Corps of Engineer permit," says Elizabeth Megginson, who works on wetlands issues for Rep. Billy Tauzin (D) of Louisiana.

Developers say the process entails huge delays and property values in areas reclassified as wetlands are falling by as much as two-thirds.

One developer involved in permitting negotiations with the corps, who asked not to be identified, cites examples of delays of more than a year to process a client's "needs analysis."

Some environmentalists, who might be expected to approve a stricter definition of wetlands, join the chorus of criticism.

"Every Corps of Engineers' project down here has been a mistake. The oil and gas industry is responsible [for the loss of wetlands] in large part, but less responsible than the federal government, especially the corps. They're saving wetlands by creating 'new wetlands.' It's a bitter joke," says Gerard Peigne.

A US House bill, introduced recently by Rep. Jimmy Hayes (D) of Louisiana, proposes ranking wetlands into three categories based on their value and excludes those ranked lowest in value from regulation.

Hoping to head off legislative criticism, the corps is revising its manual. Proposed clarifications, according to corps officials, will reduce the geographic extent of areas identified as wetlands in some areas. They are due out this month.

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