MRC’S WETLANDS GROUP MISSION
To protect wetlands in the Mississippi River basin from pollution, destruction, or insufficient mitigation by engaging regulatory agencies, monitoring and pursuing enforcement actions, and assessing the impacts of current regulations.
What are wetlands?
Wetlands are areas of land which are saturated with water, either all of the time or most of the time, to a point where the land has developed its own unique ecosystem. Generally, it is land that is mostly or completely composed of hydric soil, which means that it can support vegetation which does not necessarily need oxygen in the soil to live.
When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, the category of protected waters of the US expanded from simply “navigable waters” to include tributaries to navigable waters and wetlands adjacent to navigable waters. These areas are not necessarily navigable, but are protected nonetheless due to their unique ecology, connection to downstream rivers, and benefits to the environment.
Section 404 of the Clean Water Act established the rules governing federal protection of wetlands. The 404 program regulates the filling of such areas by property owners and developers in order to protect wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers and individual states regulate and enforce this protection with assistance from the federal EPA.
Benefits of Wetlands
Wetlands are nature’s structures for filtering pollution, nurturing wildlife species, absorbing floodwaters, stabilizing shorelines, and insulating against drought. Millions of acres of wetlands have been lost throughout the ten states along the Mississippi River, degrading the watershed from Minnesota and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Without wetlands, more pollution enters rivers from farm and urban runoff, topsoil is lost to erosion, and flood intensity increases. Wildlife species lose valuable habitat. The “dead zone” of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grow. Shrinking wetlands also make water treatment costs climb as pollution levels rise because fewer pollutants and sediments are captured. In addition, as wetlands are filled, farmed or paved, they are no longer able to store floodwaters. Amazingly, wetlands can store up to a million gallons per acre, and during drought, the loss of wetlands means stored waters are no longer available to recharge streams and rivers, exacerbating drought damage.
Problems with Existing Protection Plans
The federal Clean Water Act requires the protection of wetlands (as well as lakes, rivers and oceans). For decades, effective wetland protections have been rarely or poorly implemented. For example, Missouri, which has lost more than 4 million acres of historic wetlands, still fails to apply any water quality standards to its wetlands. A patchwork of standards and regulations across Mississippi River Basin states and multiple jurisdictions of federal agencies, including U.S. Army Corps of Engineering Districts and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional offices contribute to confusion. Recent Supreme Court Rulings about which wetlands fall under the Clean Water Act as “waters of the United States” adds to the confusion. Volatility in political debates also impacts federal policies like the Farm Bill and the Water Resources Development Act where programs to protect wetlands become partisan issues.
The Mississippi River Collaborative has identified three critical areas in Clean Water Act implementation that need improvement: nationwide permits, wetlands mitigation, and in-lieu-fee mitigation programs.
- Nationwide Permits (NWP). Nationwide permits are general permits that each allow a class of activities to alter or destroy wetlands or stream segments. Because they are applied on a nationwide basis, their general requirements are rarely sensitive to local needs and conditions. Local factors are also frequently overlooked because the impacts of activities on the environment are only considered when the Corps issues the NWP, not for each individual use of them. Lastly, authorization of a project under an NWP does not require public participation. While they are meant to provide a quick approval process for projects with minimal impacts, NWPs are frequently issued for projects with significant and often damaging impacts. NWPs should be further limited to minor projects. Significant projects with large cumulative impacts to wetlands must be required to have site-specific reviews to minimize wetland losses or else provide adequate mitigation when impacts are truly unavoidable.
- Wetlands Mitigation. Wetlands mitigation is allowed to deal with those instances where permittees have no alternative to filling in wetlands. Under mitigation programs, permit holders are typically required to restore or create equivalent (or greater) acres of wetlands at the same location, an adjacent location, or a different location from the one they impact. These requirements, however, are too often poorly enforced.
- In-Lieu-Fee (ILF) Wetland Mitigation Programs. Some states have programs which offer an alternative to mitigation in some circumstances. Rather than requiring permittees to build mitigation projects on scattered sites, the state instead collects funds from the permittees which the ILF program then can use for streams or wetland restoration and creation projects. ILF programs often have inadequate oversight. More research is needed to measure the effectiveness of ILF programs. An additional concern is that ILF programs can move wetlands out of native areas – leaving areas near original sites with less flood protection and pollution reduction.
What is MRC Doing to Protect Wetlands?
Protecting wetlands from excessive pollution and destruction is an MRC priority. Doing this will improve waters throughout the Mississippi River Basin and reduce the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, so it is an MRC priority to do so. MRC has established a Wetlands Group to address this specific issue.
Specific Activities of the MRC Wetlands Group:
- Review proposed permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and approved by the state (Clean Water Act section 404 permits) that regulate discharges of dredged or fill material into wetlands and streams.
- Review issued permits and pursue enforcement actions against key permit holders when they fail to fulfill their legal requirements for wetlands and stream mitigation.
- Evaluate programs that the law requires to restore and preserve wetlands.
- Conduct field investigations to verify and ensure compliance with permit conditions.
- Promote agricultural programs that incentivize wetland protection.
- Quantify the cumulative effects of nationwide permits (NWP) and ensure their appropriate use.
- Engage state and federal regulatory agencies on how permits impact wetlands and improving the permitting process.
- Serve as experts for the media, legislators, regulatory agencies, and wetlands protection advocacy organizations. MRC members can explain the benefits of wetlands for journalists, news releases and public comments; explain the cumulative impacts of inadequate wetland protection in states throughout the Mississippi River Basin; provide information about how climate and pollution-related disasters (flooding, droughts, chemical spills) impact wetlands; and many others.
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