Report: US Army Corp of Engineers is
Taking Aim at Wetlands
By: Environmental Integrity Project
Published on Yubanet.com on September 19, 2005
After decades of slowing down, the loss of United States
wetlands that are home to migratory birds and endangered
species may start climbing again, following decisions
by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open up 11,000-15,000
acres of wetlands in 15 states since 2004 in the aftermath
of a Supreme Court decision narrowing Clean Water Act
protections, according to an analysis conducted by the
nonprofit and nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project
Nearly five years ago, the Rehnquist-led Supreme Court
ruled 5-4 that the Clean Water Act did not protect so-called
"isolated" wetlands that provide critical habitat
for migratory birds. The 15 states with the most wetlands
exempted by the Corps' aggressive implementation of that
decision since 2004 are: Nebraska (2,970-3,139 acres);
North Dakota (2,134-2,474 acres); Florida (1,699-1,884
acres); Illinois (643-1,332 acres); Texas (642-887 acres);
Georgia (539-1,104 acres); South Dakota (479-704 acres);
Colorado (469-872 acres); Wisconsin (434-641 acres); Indiana
(407-645 acres); Ohio (259-325 acres); California (215-344
acres); Minnesota (169-356 acres); Iowa (150-274 acres);
and New York (140-205 acres).
Even at the low-end estimate of 11,000 acres of wetlands
opened to potential exploitation by the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers, the area in question is more than five times
larger than the 2,000 acres that proponents of oil exploration
in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) claim that
they need for actual drilling purposes.
EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said: "By a narrow majority,
the Supreme Court voted to shrink the Clean Water Act
and opened thousands of acres of wetlands to commercial
development. Disappearing wetlands increase the risk of
flooding, threaten the survival of migrating birds and
endangered species, and diminish the environment for outdoor
lovers and sportsmen. Developers are going to keep attacking
the Clean Water Act, and the public should understand
that the new Supreme Court has the power to determine
whether our wetlands live or die."
EIP found that a wide range of commercial interests will
benefit from recent determinations by the Corps wetlands-related
decisions, including a Wal-Mart shopping center in Texas,
a titanium sand mine in Georgia, a peat bog mine in Florida,
and, in several states, residential development and golf
courses. The fact that the Corps has determined a wetland
is exempt from the Clean Water Act does not necessarily
mean that all of the acreage in question will be destroyed.
Developers may choose to preserve some for aesthetic reasons,
and in a few instances, state or local regulation could
help to fill the void left by the Corps. But in the vast
majority of cases, once the Corps decides that the Clean
Water Act no longer applies, the wetland at issue are
completely vulnerable to being carved up by commercial
Highlights of the EIP report include the following findings:
* An apparent bias against wetlands preservation. In
at least one state, nearly all of the wetlands reviewed
by the Corps so far have been found to be exempt from
the Clean Water Act. For example, the Corps found that
the affected wetlands in North Dakota were exempt in 69
of the 77 projects it has reviewed since March 30, 1977.
Wetlands were determined to be exempt in 54 out of 125
cases reviewed in South Dakota since April 27, 2004. Both
states are home to home to "prairie potholes"
and other wetlands that provide critical habitat for waterfowl
that migrate between Canada and our southern states.
* Writing off of wetlands that provide habitat for endangered
species. Endangered species were present, or thought to
be present, in about 15 percent of the cases in which
the Corps determined that wetlands were no longer covered
by the Clean Water Act. In many other cases, the Corps
simply did not know. The US Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) estimates that about a third of endangered species
live their entire lives within wetlands.
* Discounting the input of sport fishermen. In at least
one instance, the Sacramento district office of the Army
Corps tried to present data showing that California's
38 mile Poso Creek was subject to the Clean Water Act,
in part because it supported recreational fisheries. The
Corps' Washington office refused to consider this evidence,
and the creek and its watershed are not longer protected
under the Clean Water Act. Poso Creek flows only intermittently
today because it has been dammed and diverted for many
years. As a consequence, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge
into which it flows is suffering from a drought that threatens
to extinguish one or more endangered species.
* Underestimating wetlands destruction. For example,
the Corps district office in Galveston, Texas, did not
know the size or even the location of some of the wetlands
it has determined are no longer subject to the Clean Water
Act. In at least 34 cases in other states, the Corps reported
that the "isolated" wetlands exceeded 50 acres,
but did not know their full extent. Most importantly,
the data do not include the large number of development
projects undertaken every year by private interests without
any Corps' review.
* Losses to other than traditional wetlands. The Corps
decisions also reach other waters that the Corps believes
were "isolated" from the Clean Water Act under
court rulings. In California, a 38 mile creek was declared
an unprotected "isolated water," even though
it drained to a national wildlife refuge suffering from
drought. The mudflats of China Lake in California cover
many square miles, but were judged "isolated"
As the EIP report notes, the United State has lost more
than half its native wetlands since European settlement
began. Wetland losses averaged 300,000 a year in the late
1970s and early 1980s, according to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, but slowed to about 60,000 acres a year
in the late 1990s, thanks to a combination of Clean Water
Act regulation and voluntary incentives for conservation.
While the Supreme Court's opinion was limited to "isolated"
wetlands that are home to migratory birds, the Corps has
gone further in many cases by dismissing wetlands without
considering other benefits. Schaeffer said: "As bad
as the Supreme Court decision was, the Army Corps has
made it worse by going further than the opinion required.
President Bush has pledged to support "no net loss
of wetlands." But the Corps' decisions to remove
wetlands from the Clean Water Act in so many cases speak
louder than words."