New drive to save wetlands

Army corps, Congress, even Supreme Court weigh in with possible policy changes.

In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita - and with Wilma on the way - wetlands have suddenly become a hot political, scientific, and legal issue.

Preserving wetlands along the Louisiana coast might have lessened the hurricane damage, scientists say. So some planners are looking at how to restore them around New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities.

At the same time, however, three new reports criticize the US Army Corps of Engineers for lax monitoring and enforcement of wetlands preservation. Congress is also delving into the subject by looking to strengthen wetlands protection. Even the US Supreme Court is getting involved in key cases that could set policy for decades to come.

These challenges suggest that the White House may not be keeping its wetlands pledge of "no net loss," environmentalists charge.

"They're not fully applying the Clean Water Act as it's written," says Julie Sibbing, who follows agriculture and wetlands issues for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington.

Recent reports heighten these concerns. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) last week criticized the Army Corps, one of the main federal agencies charged with protecting wetlands, for not adequately tracking efforts by developers and others to mitigate the loss of wetlands. In another report, the watchdog agency found that the Corps has not been adequately explaining its reasons for not assuming jurisdiction over disputed cases involving wetlands.

Days earlier, the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington watchdog group, examined Army Corps documents and concluded that the Corps has allowed the draining of thousands of acres of wetlands a year. This raises questions about the "no net loss" policy promised by the first Bush administration and claimed by the current White House to be its own.

For its part, the Bush administration stresses the steps it has taken to restore, improve, or protect three million acres of wetlands by 2009. In the 12 months leading up to Earth Day this year (April 22), the White House reported that 832,000 acres fit those categories.

"President Bush strongly supports using innovative programs and incentives to encourage private stewardship and cooperative conservation partnerships," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in releasing the report. "Working collaboratively with private landowners and local officials has proven remarkably effective in improving and sustaining America's wetlands."

Ms. Sibbing and other environmentalists question the accuracy of such reports, insisting that important areas of wetlands continue to be lost.

Wetlands play many roles: a filter to purify water supplies, wildlife habitat (including ecosystems that support more than a third of the nation's endangered plants and animals), shoreline erosion control, and buffers for storm surges from hurricanes and tropical storms.

But since the late 18th century, the US has lost more than half its historic wetlands - drained for farmland, filled in for housing and industrial plants, or used as a dump for waste. California has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands.

"The increase in flood damages, drought damages, and the declining bird populations are, in part, the result of wetlands degradation and destruction," says an Environmental Protection Agency document. This includes wetlands in the vast Mississippi River drainage flowing into storm-ravaged Louisiana.

Army Corps officials say they don't disagree with the recent GAO criticisms, adding that they're already in the midst of crafting new policies and practices to address those criticisms. Particularly important may be the ways in which developers, farmers, homebuilders, and others are required to compensate for the loss of any wetlands by, for example, building vegetative buffers or paying for wetlands restoration elsewhere.

"We're really changing the way we do mitigation," says Mark Sudol, chief of the Army Corps' regulatory branch.

Through the 1990s, the US had made progress in protecting wetlands. From the 1950s through the '70s, the US lost an average 458,000 acres a year. By the 1990s, that annual loss had been reduced to 58,500 acres.

But Congress has made changes that jeopardize that progress, environmentalists say. Lawmakers for the past three years have cut by 40 percent funding for the program that helps farmers restore or set aside wetlands.

At the same time, however, bills pending in the House and Senate would help protect wetlands by changing the Clean Water Act. Federal protections would be extended to "waters of the United States" and not just "navigable waters." This would include streams, sloughs, prairie potholes, natural ponds, and other water sources that natural scientists say are important in preserving wetlands.

This legislative push is meant to address a 2001 US Supreme Court ruling involving the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, Ill., in which the court limited the power of the Army Corps to protect migratory birds in wetlands under the commerce clause of the US Constitution.

By accepting to review two new cases, the high court could set the tone for wetlands policy for decades to come. In those two Michigan cases, developers are seeking to reverse lower court rulings that upheld the Army Corps authority to prevent the filling in of protected wetlands. These are likely to be the first important environmental decisions by new Chief Justice John Roberts.

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