Nation's Wetlands Still in Hot Water

New NWF findings: nation is nowhere near no-net-loss

04-22-2004 // Julie Sibbing

WASHINGTON, DC -- America's wetlands are in more trouble today than they have been in decades because current federal policies increasingly expose them to pollution, dredging and filling, according to America's Wetlands: Nowhere Near No-Net-Loss, a white paper released by the National Wildlife Federation today. In addition, the white paper underscores that the nation still cannot reliably measure the health or extent of the country's wetlands.

"While the net loss of America's wetlands may be declining, we haven't even begun to quantify what are likely to be rapidly accelerating net losses of the ecological functions of wetlands in this country," says Julie Sibbing, NWF's wetlands policy specialist. "Wetlands expand like sponges to provide flood control, purify drinking water, create habitat for the wildlife we treasure and support biodiversity, these values are just as important as acres of land."

Scientists and wetland managers agree that, although the U.S. has made significant progress in wetlands protection through laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Farm Bill, the nation still has a long way to go, according to NWF.

A major issue revealed in the NWF white paper is the lack of a comprehensive wetland survey that can accurately evaluate the status of our nation's wetlands. While a few states have undertaken fairly comprehensive wetland mapping projects, the two national wetland trend surveys conducted by the federal government use only sampling data to assess changes in the health of America's wetlands. Although both surveys provide important information about national trends, they do not paint an accurate picture of the current status of the country's wetlands or reveal regional trends in wetlands losses and gains.

Other efforts have attempted to use regulatory and incentive program data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to assess the status of the nation's wetlands. However, the data available from these programs consistently and significantly overstates the amount of wetlands restored through mitigation or as a result of incentive programs. The only way to truly reveal the health of wetlands is a three-tiered strategy of sampling, comprehensive mapping and modeling, according to NWF.

"Wetlands are an intricate and complex combination of water, soil and wildlife and they take decades, if not centuries, to develop," continues Sibbing. "You can't just trade off a rich, natural wetland for a man-made pond."

The goal of "no-net-loss" of America's wetlands was first set out by President George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign. The goal was embraced and expanded upon by President Bill Clinton and his administration was the first to articulate a net gain of wetlands. President George W. Bush's administration has also embraced the goal of no-net-loss of wetlands.

"While this administration's stated commitment to no-net-loss of wetlands is encouraging, focusing only on wetland acres misses the point that maintaining wetland functions is equally important," says Sibbing. "The administration's current policies, including a directive removing protection from an estimated 20 million acres of wetlands under the Clean Water Act, virtually guarantee that our country will continue to lose both wetland function and acreage."

A few examples featured in the NWF white paper include:

A 2003 General Accounting Office report revealed a lack of enforcement of the federal Swampbuster program, the primary line of protection against continued drainage of wetlands on farmland, citing that "Almost half of NRCS' field offices are not implementing one or more aspects of the conservation provisions of the 1985 act as required."

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)/Army Corps of Engineers' policy directive related to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Country vs. Army Corps of Engineers (known as the SWANCC decision) puts, in EPA's own estimate, 20 million acres of wetlands at risk. Even a one percent increase in wetland losses due to SWANCC would represent about as many acres of wetlands as have been lost the last 10 years.

NWF's recent report, Crossroads: Congress, the Corps of Engineers and the Future of America's Water Resources, examines just 29 proposed civil works projects that together threaten more than 640,000 acres of wetlands and shoreline areas. This includes the Yazoo Pump project in Mississippi, which would drain more than 200,000 acres of wetlands, and the St. John's Bayou, New Madrid Floodway project in Missouri, which would destroy 75,000 acres of wetlands.

The coastal marshes of Louisiana regularly hold half of the wintering duck population of the Mississippi Flyway and the coastal wetlands of Texas are the primary wintering site for ducks using the Central Flyway. Loss rates have slowed in recent years to about 16,000-22,400 acres/year, but projections for the next 50 years suggest an additional 630,000 acres of marsh and forested wetland will be lost, despite intensive and expensive efforts geared toward protection and restoration in the coastal zone.

"The idea that this country is not losing wetlands is simply not accurate," continues Sibbing. "There just isn't science to support that position."

NWF's white paper outlines a prescription for protecting America's existing wetlands and restoring wetlands that have already been lost to pollution or development. The policy prescription includes:

Our country must give remaining wetlands the highest level of protection available, for example:

Overly broad interpretations of a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Country vs. Army Corps of Engineers (known as the SWANCC decision) must stop. All regulatory personnel must be directed to enforce current regulations to the full extent of the law
* Clean Water Act Section 404 program must be strongly enforced, especially provisions dictating avoidance of impacts where practicable alternatives exist.
* Funding of the Corps of Engineers Regulatory Program must be significantly increased
Mitigation requirements must be improved and rigorously enforced to ensure full replacement of wetland acreage and function.
* The Swampbuster program must be fully enforced in all states and penalties implemented for failure.
* Congress must pass the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act (H.R. 962, S. 473)

Existing incentive programs must be expanded and new programs developed according to a national plan to ensure restoration of all types of wetlands and their functions and values in all regions of the country.

Tracking needs to be improved to accurately account for function, value and acreage of wetlands to accurately show national and regional trends.

"Given what we know about wetlands and their importance to both human and wildlife communities, we should expect much more from our government in terms of a thoughtful and ambitious plan to really achieve no-net-loss and to regain some of what has been lost in order to ensure a healthy future for generation to come," concludes Sibbing.

Contacts: Julie Sibbing, NWF, 202-797-6832

Related Resources
  • Supporting Document
    "Nowhere Near No-Net-Loss" (pdf)

    The goal of “no-net-loss” of wetlands was first set out by President George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign, and was announced as an administration policy at an EPA press conference in January, 1989.

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