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Protecting Wetlands
The Washington Post
Posted on 09/30/2002

Last year the Supreme Court narrowed the reach of the Clean Water Act, holding that it doesn't apply to "isolated" wetlands because it refers to navigable waters. The result has been confusion, and potential danger to natural habitats. Federal officials in different areas of the country have put the court's ruling into practice differently. States haven't made much progress in filling the gap. Two U.S. courts have reached opposite conclusions about how much connection to navigable water is enough to bring a wetland within the Clean Water Act's reach. And wetlands that play a critical environmental role are perilously vulnerable to pollution or destruction by dredging and filling.

There's a right way and a wrong way to end the confusion, and the administration seems to be reaching for the wrong way. Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency let it be known last week that the administration will consider new rules for applying the Clean Water Act. The Justice Department, at least until now, has argued in court cases for a narrow interpretation of the Supreme Court decision. But new rulemaking could become an opportunity to further weaken the federal role in protecting small streams and bodies of water.

The best answer to this problem lies with Congress. Pending legislation would remove from the act the reference to navigable waters, making clear lawmakers' intention to protect all U.S. waters, including the isolated bogs, pools and "prairie potholes" now in jeopardy. It would reaffirm Congress's original aim and would conform to the way the law was understood until last year's ruling. Opponents of regulation might yet challenge Congress's constitutional right to regulate waters that are entirely contained within a single state. But there is a good argument to be made that wetlands are crucial to wide-ranging natural processes, including flood control and water filtration, and provide a habitat for birds and amphibians. Even those that appear self-contained are linked to groundwater supplies that aren't constrained by state borders. It's right to include them in the broad national effort to protect America's waters from degradation.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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