Wetlands are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet and also among the most valuable. They are the filters — the landscape equivalent of kidneys, perhaps — that remove sediment and toxins from the water. In Maryland, our understanding of the importance of wetlands has grown dramatically in recent decades, thanks not only to our desire to preserve and rescue the Chesapeake Bay but to protect drinking water supplies and mitigate flood risks. What was once seen as undesirable “swamp” is now understood to be critical habitat, too much of which has already been lost to development and agriculture.
That’s why the recent announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that they are seeking to redefine the “Waters of the United States” to reduce federal oversight of wetlands that are only “wet” after it rains or are otherwise not permanently connected to waterways is worrisome. Any notion that state wetlands protections will somehow make up for this potential loss is misguided. In the case of the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed, for example, no fewer than two states (Delaware and West Virginia) as well as the District of Columbia have waters governed by federal, not state, law.
And even in a state like Maryland, which has been more aggressive in wetlands protections than some of its neighbors, there are limits to what has been accomplished. As a recent report by the D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project has pointed out, state wetlands protections are “full of gaps,” giving farmers, for example, broad leeway to plow over so-called ephemeral or intermittent wetlands if not doing so would cause financial hardship. And this is not some minor concern: The same EIP report notes there are at least 34,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands and headwater streams in the Chesapeake region that stand to lose federal protections.
There’s even a name for these isolated wetlands — Delmarva Potholes. In addition to filtering pollution, they provide important amphibian habitat and help prevent local neighborhoods from flooding after a downpour. That’s no small concern in the era of climate change with more severe weather, rising sea levels and the stunning decline of so-called “edge” amphibians (at least 30 species are currently threatened with extinction and an estimated 42 percent are in decline, according to the Zoological Society of London).
It’s not surprising that the Trump administration wants to loosen restrictions on development. The Obama administration era “WOTUS” rule has long been opposed by farmers and certain business interests as a “vast expansion” of Clean Water Act protections and challenged unsuccessfully in federal court. Sadly, this is not the first time the EPA has capitulated to these special interests and sought to reduce or abandon its important role in the multi-state Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Yet without that federal participation, can states like Pennsylvania or West Virginia be held accountable for the pollution that originates within their borders but the consequences of which are felt most acutely downstream?
But even leaving the nation’s largest estuary out of the equation, Americans ought to be upset by this assault on their drinking water supply. An estimated 15 percent of U.S. drinking water is not considered safe, according the the Natural Resources Defense Council. That means 70 million people are already affected by such pollutants as arsenic, copper, lead and a variety of unhealthful chemicals such as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs that can contribute to thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol and hormone suppression. Not surprisingly, surveys show public trust in tap water is at its lowest in a century. Can we afford to lose our natural buffers protecting water quality on top of that?