Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers had broad jurisdiction to protect and restore the nation's waters. Under the Act, these two agencies were given permitting authority to ensure that vital water bodies (including rivers, streams, wetlands and more) were not degraded in ways that posed a threat to the environment and to society. However, two Supreme Court decisions (Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2001 and Rapanos v. United States in 2006) have curtailed this jurisdiction by limiting what waters can be protected under the Act. Following these decisions, the EPA has backed away from regulating pollution into water bodies across the nation, including many freshwater wetlands. This reduction in regulations has had serious implications for water quality throughout the country, since many waters which once were protected under the Act are now vulnerable to pollution, degradation, and destruction.
What this means for Delaware:
Wetlands are the unsung ecosystem heroes of Delaware. They cover nearly 30% of the State, spanning over 350,000 acres. About two thirds of that massive area is freshwater non-tidal wetlands. While they may vary in size, vegetation, and connectivity to other waterways, they all have one thing in common: they provide a host of ecosystem services to Delawareans. Wetlands are crucial habitats for countless species of plants and animals, including those which are rare, endangered, and indigenous to the State. They also cycle and retain nutrients and sediments to manage erosion, filter pollutants to protect the quality of ground and surface water, and control and store storm waters to minimize flooding. In fact, one acre of wetlands can hold up to 330,000 gallons of water at a depth of one foot. All of these services not only keep ecosystems in balance; they also contribute to the social and economic health of local communities because every single service a wetland provides is free!
Currently, there is no legislation in Delaware to fill the gaps in federal freshwater wetlands protection left by the Supreme Court cases. The longer these vital resources go without any legal protections in the State, the more wetlands will be lost to development and degradation. There is no doubt that the loss of Delaware's wetlands (and the services they provide) would take a toll on the environmental, social, and economic wellbeing of the State. For more information on Delaware's wetlands, visit the DNREC website.
DNS's position on the issue:
The Delaware Nature Society fully supports initiatives at the state and federal level to strengthen protections for freshwater wetlands. Wetlands are a crucial part of the environmental landscape of Delaware and therefore ought to be a top priority for conservation.
The EPA is currently considering releasing a new guidance to clarify and strengthen protections for freshwater wetlands and other water bodies. The agency will be accepting comments until July 31, 2011. DNS is in favor of this new guidance and encourages you to leave a comment telling the EPA that strengthening the Clean Water Act is the right thing to do.