The Obama administration is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA) with events across the country this year. But the Act’s 40th anniversary will be a bittersweet one absent action by the administration to restore Clean Water Act protections that once helped stem the loss of wetlands and maintain clean water. For a decade now, Clean Water Act protections have been eroding for wetlands, lakes, and streams nationwide. Last year, this administration took one important step toward restoring these protections, but unless it follows through to finalize and reinforce those protections this year, accelerating wetland losses will give us much less to celebrate.
The strength and effectiveness of the Clean Water Act have been undermined by two ambiguous U.S. Supreme Court decisions (SWANCC and Rapanos). Damaging policy guidance issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in 2003 and 2008 added confusion for landowners, hunters and anglers, industry, and conservationists about the scope of CWA protections. As are result, more than 20 million acres of wetlands and about 2 million miles of streams in the continental United States are at risk of losing the very Clean Water Act protections that so successfully cleaned up the nation’s waters following passage of the Act in 1972.
Families, communities, farmers, and businesses large and small depend on clean, healthy waters for their health, jobs, and prosperity. The Clean Water Act is essential to keeping our drinking water safe; providing millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat across the country; ensuring abundant clean water for irrigating crops; and bolstering the robust fishery, tourism, and outdoor recreation industries. Millions of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity, as well as our hunting and angling traditions, are all at risk if CWA protections are not restored by the administration.
Although the administration took a positive first step last year to restore some protections for at-risk waters, hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts are strongly encouraging the administration to take the essential follow-up action. These steps are critical for conserving prairie potholes and other wetlands essential to waterfowl, fish, and hunting and angling. As our natural water and wetland resources continue to slip away, the question remains: Can Americans afford to wait?
Wetland Gains Reversed
The erosion of clean water protections is taking a serious toll on wetlands. The most recent report (“Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009,” www.fws.gov/wetlands/statusandtrends2009) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) demonstrates that the trend toward reduced wetland losses – and even small gains in wetland conservation in the early part of the past decade – have been reversed. Between 2004 and 2009, FWS found net wetland acres dropped by 62,300 nationwide, which is a 140-percent increase in the wetland loss rate compared with the 1998-2004 time frame. FWS also reports that forested wetlands declined by 633,000 acres, representing the “largest losses since the 1974 to 1985 time period.” And the full extent of natural wetland loss is masked by growth of man-made retention and other ponds that are of more limited value for fish and wildlife, which FWS found increased by some 336,000 acres. This report highlights the SWANCC and Rapanos decisions as likely contributors to wetland losses (see pages 17 and 68).
At least 20 million acres of so-called “isolated” wetlands such as prairie potholes are directly at risk of being drained and filled because guidance issued in response to the Supreme Court decisions makes it very hard to protect waters that are seasonal in nature or wetlands not immediately adjacent to a stream, river, or other permanent water body. However, these wetlands as well as at-risk headwater streams provide communities with important water quality, flood storage, and fish and wildlife habitat benefits – benefits that are lost when these waters are degraded and destroyed.
Administration Must Act Soon
Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency took the most meaningful action in a decade to begin restoring lost Clean Water Act protections. They proposed replacing guidance that is outdated and inconsistent with the Clean Water Act and Supreme Court decisions with new policies that are more firmly grounded in science and the well-established hydrologic, physical, and biological connections between waters. This was a very positive first step which our organizations and many others strongly support.
In their proposal, the Corps and EPA stated that the next step would be to finalize the revised guidance and initiate a rulemaking to update their regulations and more specifically and definitively define the types of waters covered by the Clean Water Act. Addressing the problem through rulemaking, which follows a rigorous process of public involvement and review, is widely supported by interested parties across the spectrum as well as by several Supreme Court justices.
Despite widespread support for this crucial measure, the administration is losing momentum. While the White House hesitates to act, clean, safe drinking water; critical wildlife habitat; outdoor sports enjoyed by tens of millions of America; and an annual economic contribution of $122 billion by hunting, angling, and wildlife watching hang in the balance. To slow the rate of wetland loss and the associated negative impacts to things like quality drinking water and flood damages, the administration should promptly finalize the guidance and initiate rulemaking on the Clean Water Act. Doing so is a critical step toward restoring lasting protections to at-risk wetlands, lakes, and streams and putting us back on the path to clean, healthy waters and wetlands for all Americans.
Ducks Unlimited * Izaak Walton League * National Wildlife Federation
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership