Two Views of a Swamp: Scientists Dispute Legislators' Take on Wetlands

By Adler, Tina | Science News, July 22, 1995 | Go to article overview

Two Views of a Swamp: Scientists Dispute Legislators' Take on Wetlands


Adler, Tina, Science News


Environmentalists and the Weyerhaeuser lumber and paper company are waging a legal battle over 17,000 acres the company owns near Plymouth, N.C. The environmentalists think the property is a wetland, which would call down legal restrictions on its use. Weyerhaeuser disputes the classification. Both sides agree that the land has soil and vegetation typical of a wetland, but they disagree on how wet it actually is.

As part of the court case, both have submitted their assessments to Environmental Protection Agency officials, who will decide whether or not the property qualifies as a wetland, explains Tom Welborn, chief of EPA's wetland protection section in Atlanta. That decision could affect what the company can and cannot do with the land.

Stories of projects held up because of regulators' and environmentalists' concern for wetlands abound--as do stories of valuable wetlands getting paved over. Such tales of woe have become so common that policy makers and scientists alike have tried to stop the storytelling and take action to make wetland regulations fairer and more consistent. The two groups, independently, made new attempts this May. But they came up with very different views of what constitutes a wetland.

On May 16, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to reauthorize the Clean Water Act, but with provisions that make it easier for landowners and developers to obtain permits to dredge and fill wetlands. The Senate is considering a similar version of the bill.

While representatives were putting the final touches on their bill, a group of scientists and legal experts convened by the National Academy of Science's National Research Council in Washington, D.C., was finishing up its report on the science of identifying and delineating wetlands. Congress had requested the document in 1993, to help clear up confusion. The NRC committee had expected to complete the report in December 1994, but it didn't arrive on Congress' doorstep until May 9 of this year.

More important, the report didn't come in time for the new Congress to include its findings in the proposed bill, congressional staff say. The absence of their conclusions is quite evident, NRC committee members assert.

The NRC document supports and slightly expands the definition of wetlands embodied in current federal regulations. The definition in the proposed legislation, on the other hand, would remove from federal jurisdiction roughly half of the country's wetlands, asserts NRC committee chairman William M. Lewis Jr. of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Authors of the proposed Clean Water Act legislation say only 7 to 10 percent of wetlands would lose their federal protection.

Although the NRC group declares that solid science backs up most of the existing regulations, the new congressional leaders seek to completely revamp the current rules.

"Many of the [report's] conclusions and recommendations underscore the committee's confidence in . . . current regulatory practice for characterizing and delineating wetlands," Lewis wrote in the preface. However, the committee does call on the federal government to update the 1987 Army Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual, which regulators use to implement the Clean Water Act. The manual, for instance, does not extend its standard regulations to permafrost wetlands.

But Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D--La.), who introduced the Senate version of the Clean Water Act reauthorization, believes that current rules constitute a "rigid regulatory program that is devaluating property and preventing construction on land that rarely, if ever, has water on the surface but still is considered to be a wetland."

When asked about the proposed legislation, NRC committee members tend to shake their heads over the same troublesome points.

For example, the bill states that wetlands must have water on the surface for 21 consecutive days during the growing season in the majority of the years for which records are available. …

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