Call on science to protect wetlands policy in a changing climate

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The Trump administration’s dogged retreat from the use of science in sound public policy will reach another milestone on June 22 when final regulations reducing the number of water bodies and wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act take effect. 

The Trump regulation replaces an effective rule developed during the Obama administration. In addition to protecting substantially more waters, the Obama rule was built on the most recent science, summarized in a report describing clear connections among streams and wetlands. 

The Trump administration took a different tack, dramatically narrowing the waters protected by the existing act and dismissing the science related to the connectivity of waters. Ominously, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own Science Advisory Board, now made up largely of scientists appointed by this administration, wrote that the rule “decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not provide a scientific basis in support of its consistency with the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”

The Trump administration’s disregard of science is especially dangerous at a time when a changing climate is making it harder to meet clean water goals. A warming climate drives more intense precipitation, which creates more polluted runoff and flooding. Wetlands can help manage heavier rainfall, storing between 1 and 1.5 million gallons of water per acre, as well provide other benefits, including filtering out pollutants and serving as critical wildlife habitat. A warming climate is also causing more severe storms and rising sea levels, endangering coastal wetlands that provide buffers during storms and capture carbon, along with other benefits. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that after suffering huge wetland losses in the late 20th century, the country has reduced the dramatic rate of loss but is still losing wetlands overall. Meeting the challenges of protecting wetlands in the decades ahead will require new, stronger measures informed by the best science.  

We need a regulatory definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act that is built on the most recent scientific assessments, that recognizes the importance of connections among waterbodies, and values the contribution of wetlands to functioning hydrologic systems. Even better would be for Congress to put such a broad definition into law, since both of EPA’s attempts to create a regulatory definition have been tied up in courts.

In the absence of a scientifically defensible definition, there are still actions EPA and states can take to protect their wetlands. First, since 1990, EPA has encouraged states to adopt water quality standards for wetlands. A report by the Association of State Wetland Managers states that “Water quality standards developed specifically for wetlands help ensure that the provisions of the Clean Water Act…are consistently applied to wetlands.” EPA found that half of all wetlands are in poor or fair condition. But, as of 2015, just six states had wetland-specific water quality standards and only 10 states were in the process of developing standards. EPA needs to increase significantly the funding and technical support for states to develop wetland water quality standards.  

Second, states need to make better use of the authority already in the Clean Water Act to steer new development away from wetlands and other sensitive areas critical to the health of watersheds. New science also allows better recognition of significant wetlands, such as those supporting the salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. These critical areas where development would cause “unacceptable adverse effect” should be systematically identified as off limits well in advance of development proposals.   

Finally, states and EPA need to look beyond just slowing the rate of wetlands losses and make a new commitment to enhance existing wetlands or create new wetlands, as needed, to support healthy watersheds. Wetlands should be restored or created, not just to offset permitted losses elsewhere, but to meet goals for their extent and function in each watershed. Science can help define the extent and type of wetlands that are needed to better manage flooding and support clean water and diverse wildlife. EPA outlined this approach in a 2013 report on including wetlands in watershed planning. 

By calling on science to better protect existing water bodies and wetlands and rebuilding wetlands throughout each watershed, the country can meet clean water goals and be far better prepared for the challenges of a changing climate. 

Jeff Peterson is a former senior policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and author of “A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.” Betsy Southerland is the former director of the Office of Science and Technology in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water.

Tags Clean Water Act Climate change Environment EPA Obama administration protection for federal waterways and wetlands Trump administration US waterways wetlands

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