Happy American Wetlands Month! Our nation’s wetlands—marshes, bogs, fens, and swamps (and many other types you may never have heard of)—are unique, dynamic, and critically important water bodies. They perform multiple functions that improve people’s lives and the environment. Among other things, wetlands filter pollution, prevent flooding, provide wildlife habitat, and trap global warming pollution in soils. One recent estimate of wetland benefits worldwide quantifies their value at $47.4 trillion/year.
Despite these critical “ecosystem services,” that wetlands perform, wetlands are currently under threat. Globally, an estimated 85% of wetland area has been lost. In the continental U.S., approximately 53% of wetland area that existed prior to European colonization has been lost and, of the remaining area, a national survey found that less than half is in "good" condition, while 32% is in "poor" condition.
The importance of wetlands, combined with their imperiled state, warrant pausing to celebrate wetlands this month and to consider how to improve their protection, especially in light of a recent Biden administration report.
In the newly-published report, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” the administration sketched out a broad vision for achieving an important goal: conserving at least 30 percent of the nation’s land, waters, and ocean areas by 2030. Getting to this target is important to help stem the biodiversity crisis we’re seeing in the world today, as several of my colleagues explained. This overarching initiative is known popularly as “30 by 30.” The report declares eight principles the government will follow as it works toward the goal:
Principle 1: Pursue a Collaborative and Inclusive Approach to Conservation
Principle 2: Conserve America’s Lands and Waters for the Benefit of All People
Principle 3: Support Locally Led and Locally Designed Conservation Efforts
Principle 4: Honor Tribal Sovereignty and Support the Priorities of Tribal Nations
Principle 5: Pursue Conservation and Restoration Approaches that Create Jobs and Support Healthy Communities
Principle 6: Honor Private Property Rights and Support the Voluntary Stewardship Efforts of Private Landowners and Fishers
Principle 7: Use Science as a Guide
Principle 8: Build on Existing Tools and Strategies with an Emphasis on Flexibility and Adaptive Approaches
Because this new report is very high-level, this post aims to flesh out in greater detail how these principles can and should animate our national wetlands policies. Science-based wetland protection requirements and restoration programs, if properly enforced and funded, would support local communities, provide jobs, do right by tribal nations, and go a long way toward conserving these critical waters consistent with the national commitment to 30x30.
Starting with the last two principles, the most critical thing that the Biden administration can do for wetlands is to undo—as soon as possible—Trump’s unscientifically based rollback of the Clean Water Act—the most important existing tool we have to protect our wetlands. That action, a regulation we termed the “Dirty Water Rule,” removed federal protections that ensure wetlands can’t be paved over, jeopardized by oil spills, or polluted without an environmental review, efforts to reduce adverse impacts, and, often, actions to mitigate the harms caused by the activity. This rule radically reduced—think tens of millions of acres—the wetland areas that the Clean Water Act protects and did so over the objections of numerous scientists, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s own independent Science Advisory Board. Reversing this rule and adopting requirements that apply the Clean Water Act’s safeguards to waters that the science demonstrates are important to watershed health is essential if we are going to stem wetlands losses.
Undoing the Dirty Water Rule will also implement the second principle laid out in the new conservation report (Conserve America’s Lands and Waters for the Benefit of All People). Because it sets a baseline of protections that apply everywhere in the U.S., appropriately enforcing the Clean Water Act means that communities that have often been neglected by environmental policymakers have the same rights to protect the small wetlands that help prevent flooded homes as conservationists desiring to protect large, pristine wetland areas for wildlife.
Next, to honor its commitment to tribal nations and promote local solutions, the Biden administration should also undo a regulatory action the Trump EPA took to undermine the authority that states and tribes have to prevent federally-permitted projects from harming their waters. When a project—like a hydro dam, an oil or gas pipeline, or a development or dumping project that fills in a waterway—needs a permit from a federal agency, the Clean Water Act authorizes state or tribal water agencies to stop the project or impose conditions on it to ensure healthy water quality, aquatic habitat, or other important values. Numerous states rely on this authority to regulate activities that fill in wetlands and to impose requirements to mitigate their impacts. However, the Trump EPA issued a regulation that eviscerated this important requirement, prompting 20 states to sue. The new leaders at EPA can and must reverse the Trump rule so that states and tribes once again can take a leading role in the conservation of their wetlands.
But fixing federal regulatory rollbacks are just part of what we need to do to achieve our wetlands conservation goals. The country also needs to invest in programs that incentivize wetlands protection by private landowners. For example, we should provide significant funds to the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program in the Farm Bill; this program provides funds to secure permanent or long-term easements to restore, protect, or enhance wetlands on private or tribal land. Similarly, we should provide support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs, namely the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program. These programs aim to reduce flooding risks and can be used for wetlands restoration and other “natural infrastructure.” In addition, EPA administers multiple funding programs authorized by the Clean Water Act that could support wetlands conservation, including one that helps pay for projects that reduce so-called “non-point” pollution (like runoff from agricultural fields) and several programs designed to improve iconic watersheds like the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, and more.
Stepping up our national commitment to wetlands protections is not just good environmental policy. Investing in wetlands restoration can also help the nation recover from the ongoing financial crisis. According to one report, preservation and restoration actions to account for wetland and stream impacts, typically required under the Clean Water Act, lead to “compensatory mitigation investments total[ing] an estimated $1.3 to $4.0 billion annually.” The same analysis provided job estimates for four studies of wetland restoration and noted that those studies found between 6.8 and 29.0 jobs per $1 million invested in wetland projects.