Reports Highlight Threats to Local Waters and Wetlands

Studies demonstrate need to restore Clean Water Act protections

02-10-2010 // Aileo Weinmann
Father and daughter fishing

A series of new reports highlight the threats to local waters and wetlands in four states under regulatory guidance resulting from two Supreme Court Cases. Compiled by the National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, and Trout Unlimited, the reports identify case studies where the loss of Clean Water Act protections has put local waters in Colorado, Montana, South Carolina and Tennessee at risk for pollution, unrestricted drainage and destruction. It is almost certain that these waters would have been protected prior to the 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court decisions that weakened the Clean Water Act.

Colorado Waters and Wetlands

“Without these protections, Colorado’s limited and precious aquatic resources are at further risk,” said Dennis Buechler, Director Emeritus of the Colorado Wildlife Federation and the author of the report on Colorado wetlands and streams. “In some instances where protections have been removed completely, the state of law has caused unnecessary confusion.”

An example of this confusion is the case of Hidden Lake – an 88 acre lake in Westminster, Colorado – that had its Clean Water Act protections removed because it supposedly does not have a surface connection to waters covered by the CWA. The lake boasts an excellent smallmouth bass fishery, and is used by local residents for recreation such as swimming and boating. After the City of Westminster protested, protections were restored. But protections were removed for more than half a decade.

“There are examples of threatened waters and wetlands all over the state,” said Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation. Colorado streams and wetlands provide habitat and benefits to more than 75 percent of the state’s wildlife and waterfowl.

Cases in Colorado where important waterways have lost basic federal pollution protections or been placed at risk because of the confused state of the law include wetlands that feed tributaries of the South Platte River, Hidden Lake and its associated wetlands, the playa wetlands in northeastern Colorado, and other waters under siege from development.

Tennessee Waters and Wetlands

Tennessee is known for its prized rivers, streams and wetlands,” said Mike Butler, Chief Executive Officer of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. “Without a strong Clean Water Act, the state’s heritage of diverse wildlife and clean waters is at risk.” While Tennessee has state level protections for many waters, industry groups have already used the uncertainty regarding federal protections to weaken these state laws. It is almost certain that as long as federal protections remain mired in confusion, attacks on state-level protections will continue.

Tennessee has one of the richest diversities of wildlife in the nation and a vast array of important waters, from mountain trout streams, to major tributaries of the Mississippi River, to vast wetlands relied on by ducks and other waterfowl. However, due to recent legal developments, up to 60 percent of the state’s stream miles and half of its 787,000 remaining acres of wetlands may no longer be protected from pollution and destruction under the Clean Water Act.

“Tennessee has some of the most rapidly developing counties in the nation,” said Jim Murphy, National Wildlife Federation wetlands and water resources counsel. “Development pressure coupled with the increased stresses climate change will place on Tennessee’s waters bode poorly for Tennessee’s children’s ability to enjoy clean water and healthy wildlife unless basic Clean Water Act protections are restored.”

Montana Waters and Wetlands

This report provides an overview of the waters at risk in Montana and documents cases in Montana where important waterways have lost basic federal pollution protections or been placed at risk because of the confused state of the law. Included among these are a valuable wetland next to a famed trout river; a geographically isolated wetland with potentially important habitat values; and a wetland that may be geographically isolated, but likely has other important hydrological and ecological connections to water quality and wildlife habitat.

“These protections help guarantee the outdoor heritage that of a state like Montana,” said Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation. “Sportsmen spend a billion dollars in Montana every year, and the lack of protection for these waters and wetlands threatens that economic engine.”

Montana contains a portion of the Prairie Pothole Region, an area that contains many small, shallow ponds and wetlands that are critical to waterfowl and wildlife and important on a continental scale.

Fish habitat is also threatened. “Many of the world’s finest coldwater fisheries are here in Montana, and threats to these streams threaten those fisheries,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “The epic waters from movies like A River Runs Through It depend on stream-feeding wetlands like the ones detailed in this report.”

South Carolina Waters and Wetlands

“Protecting wetlands and streams in South Carolina is critical to maintaining the habitats that support South Carolina’s wildlife and waterfowl,” said Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation. “Sportsmen are a major economic force in South Carolina, and losing these water resources threatens that benefit.”

This report provides an overview of the waters at risk in South Carolina and documents two specific cases in South Carolina where important waterways have lost basic federal pollution protections or been placed at risk because of the confused state of the law. Included among these are a large coastal wetland in the Murrells Inlet area in Horry County (known as the “Spectre Wetland”) and almost 500 acres of wetlands in the Black Tom Bay area in Berkeley County (known as the “Pine Hill Tract”) that eventually feed into Charleston Harbor. Protection of coastal and headwater wetlands such as those highlighted in the report will be particularly vital for the ability of people and wildlife to adapt to impacts from climate change such as rising sea levels and more intense precipitation events. It is almost certain that these waters would have been protected prior to the 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court decisions that weakened the Clean Water Act.

“The confusion and lack of clarity over what is and is not covered by the Clean Water Act threatens to undermine years of conservation efforts,” said Kim Diana Connolly, who helped compile the report. “These examples are indicative of the larger problem that this confusion is causing for America’s waterways.”

“TU, DU, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, and the National Wildlife Federation, devote thousands of hours of volunteer effort, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, each year to restoring and protecting South Carolina’s waters which are at risk from the harmful Supreme Court decisions," said Steve Moyer, Vice President of Government Affairs for Trout Unlimited. “These waters need the full protection of the Clean Water Act.”  

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