What's a Wetland? Debate to Begin Academy of Sciences Challenges Proposed Dilution of Protections

Article excerpt

Is a wetland still a wetland if you don't see moisture?

No, says a bill in Congress that would scale back wetland protections.

Yes, says the National Academy of Sciences, in a report released Tuesday.

In the long-awaited report, the academy fuels an explosive debate scheduled to begin today in the House by rejecting new and narrower definitions for wetlands proposed in amendments to the Clean Water Act.

The amendments could eliminate protections for more than 60 percent of the wetlands in the country, according to the Association of State Wetland Managers. In the Midwest, the chief impact of the changes would be to eliminate restrictions on use of many farm and river bottom lands.

In one key difference of opinion, the amendments say that a wetland must have water at the surface for 21 consecutive days in the growing season, generally the summer. But the academy's report says that an area should qualify as a wetland if it had moisture near the surface for 14 straight days, and not necessarily during the growing season.

The report reaffirms the value of wetlands, a point of contention in the congressional debate. Agricultural wetlands, the report says, "can be particularly important for controlling water quality, preventing floods and maintaining biodiversity." Lawmaker Critical

Rep. James A. Hayes, D-La., the chief sponsor of amendments to limit wetland protections, criticized the academy for releasing its report on the eve of the House debate.

"The timing of the report is not very good for the academy, quite frankly, because it lends a political overcast to what should be an impartial study," Hayes said.

The study in question was requested by Congress in 1991 in an effort to shed light on the complex matter of wetlands delineations. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that gives advice on science and technology under a congressional charter.

R. Wayne Skaggs, a professor at North Carolina State University, one of 17 experts who conducted the study, said the report was completed sooner than some panelists had hoped because of the urgency of the debate in Congress.

Wetlands are bottom lands, swamps and marshes that support plant life and provide habitat for birds and animals. In Missouri, most wetlands lie along rivers, where they are viewed by many as a defense against floods. …