The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced a proposal to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act with respect to wetlands and other key watershed features. It has instantly met with howls of opposition by development interests, property rights groups, the American Farm Bureau, and a number of lawmakers.
Leaving aside the specifics in the proposal, lost in this hubbub is any serious consideration of how wetlands are important to our nation’s fiscal health and to the wallets of American taxpayers.
Wetlands, because of their unique ability to trap, store, filter and slowly release storm water, preform a number of essential functions. They reduce the frequency and severity of flooding, help maintain water quality, replenish underground aquifers, and protect against drought.
When wetlands are lost to development it inevitably leads to costly infrastructure projects—such as dams, levees, diversion channels, storm sewers, and sewage treatment plant upgrades—designed to perform the same services that the wetlands had performed for free.
Why would any fiscal conservative want to make that swap?
Not only do taxpayers foot the bill for the initial construction of this infrastructure, but they end up on the hook to maintain it in perpetuity.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that over the next two decades it will cost roughly $2 trillion to adequately maintain the nation’s existing flood control, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.
Infrastructure costs are only part of the picture. When wetlands are replaced with roads, parking lots, buildings or even farmland—storm water runs into rivers and streams more quickly, increasing the frequency and severity of flooding.
In many watersheds, flood levels historically witnessed once every 100 years are now occurring much more frequently. With that additional flooding comes increased property loss, more federal disaster assistance, and higher flood insurance costs.
The government-run National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides an interesting case in point. The NFIP was created in 1968 to provide affordable flood insurance to at risk homeowners in exchange for a local commitment to reduce flood risk. Instead, flood risk and property damage claims have continued to rise and the subsidized NFIP - which takes in roughly $3.5 billion in premium revenue annually - is more than $24 billion in debt to American taxpayers.
Wetlands loss not only contributes to flooding, it also worsens the impacts of drought. Rapid storm water runoff diminishes the ability of rivers, lakes and underground aquifers to maintain adequate water levels, reducing the availability of water during dry periods. This also tends to spawn costly infrastructure projects.
Since our nation’s founding more than 50 percent of its wetlands have been lost, and they continue to disappear at a rate of more than 80,000 acres per year. The unsubsidized hydrologic services they once provided have been replaced with a fiscally nightmarish combination of aging infrastructure, government payouts and unsustainable programs.
We're not saying never build anywhere, but projects must take into account the fiscal benefits of wetlands. Fiscal conservatives, those committed to spending tax dollars responsibly and holding down the cost of government, should lead the way in reversing this trend and start making wetlands a key tool for saving taxpayer dollars.
That means resisting the pleas of narrowly focused parochial interests who seek free hand to pave, build or plow over our remaining wetlands, while often looking to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Agriculture, or other federal programs to cover the costs. It means crafting responsible policies that will actually prevent further wetlands loss and encourage restoration.
To do otherwise—as past experience shows us—exacts a permanent toll on the nation’s fiscal health, and an equally permanent tax burden on the American people.