February Message from Rick

Hello Wetland Enthusiasts!

I hope everyone had a fantastic World Wetlands Day and was able to get out and explore a wetland.

Recently, the US EPA announced the changes to the definition of Waters of the US (WOTUS) which has serious implications for the protection of streams and wetlands especially. We know that fewer wetlands will be under federal protection under the Clean Water Act, but just how many wetlands will lose their protection is still to be determined.

One estimate based on an EPA internal presentation is that 18% of the streams would lose protection and 51% of the wetland would lose protection across the United States. Based on data we have for North Carolina, we estimate that 26% of forested headwater wetlands could lose protection and depending on interpretations, it could be much more. We also know that many basin wetlands like pocosins, wetland flats, and Carolina bays could lose their protection.

So, you may wonder, what does it mean for a wetland to lose their protection. When a wetland is to be impacted usually with some development project, a permit has to be granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers to approve the impacts (I.e., draining and filling) and after efforts are made to first avoid or minimize the impact. A second permit is needed from the North Carolina Department of Enironmental Quality. This permit is also based on the Clean Water Act but deals with water quality issues with the proposed impact. Both permits are required before a wetland can be filled or altered. If a wetland loses protection under the Clean Water Act, then a developer can directly impact a wetland or stream without a permit — there is no legal mechanism to prevent or minimize (or mitigate) the wetland impact.

Some states like California and Minnesota have state rules that protect wetlands and streams beyond the federal government. However, the state of North Carolina currently cannot have stricter laws than the federal government. South Carolina is not under this same restriction but would require legislative action to pass new rules.

Of course, there will be lawsuits and probably the implementation of the new rules will be delayed. The Carolina Wetlands Association will be speaking up for the protection of wetland across North and South Carolina. We need to hear your stories about wetlands that will be impacted by the changes in definition of Water of the US. Please contact me, rick.savage@carolinawetlands.org.

Be sure to watch our webpage for the latest information as we learn more about what these new rules will mean to our wetlands. We should all be concerned about the impact to our ecosystem services provided by our wetlands.

Thanks all and let’s spread the word about how we need to protect our wetlands,

Rick