October 12, 2005

US reduces protection of waters, wetlands: report

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the past four years, the United
States has drastically cut back on its protection of waterways
and wetlands, whose erosion was cited as a factor in the
destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, according to a report
issued on Wednesday.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, the
investigative arm of Congress, examined how the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency assert
jurisdiction over many of the nation's waterways and wetlands.

Environmental groups criticized government practices
discussed in the report.

"Losses of wetlands in many areas in the United States are
unprecedented, yet the corps is allowing many of the remaining
wetlands to be destroyed, in violation of its Clean Water Act
obligations, without even trying to figure out why," said
Christy Leavitt of environmental group U.S. PIRG.

Navis Bermudez of the Sierra Club said, "The GAO's report
confirms the administration is secretly pursuing a policy that
favors developers and other industrial interests."

Before 2001, the corps asserted jurisdiction over most
waters, including isolated, nonnavigable waters, if migratory
birds could use them. That meant that anyone wishing to build
homes, shopping malls, offices or golf courses in such
environments first had to obtain a permit from the corps.

However a Supreme Court decision in January 2001 concluded
that the corps had exceeded its powers by seeking jurisdiction
over such waters solely based on their use by birds.

The GAO report found that under the Bush administration the
corps and the Environmental Protection Agency had used that
ruling as a reason to scale back its jurisdiction over
waterways and wetlands much further than was required by the
court decision.


"The corps is generally not asserting jurisdiction over
isolated, intrastate, nonnavigable waters using its existing
authority," the report said.

Many scientists believe the loss of wetlands along the Gulf
of Mexico to building and development contributed to the extent
of the destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Wetlands soak up and slow storm water. Paving them over leaves
the excess water with no place to go and exacerbates flooding.

The Clean Water Act prohibits most discharges of dredged or
fill material into the "waters of the United States" without
first obtaining a permit from the corps. The issue of whether
or not the corps has jurisdiction over a particular stretch of
water depends on how one defines the term "waters of the United
States." In 2003, the corps and the EPA issued a joint
memorandum scaling back that definition to exclude virtually
all nonnavigable waters.

The report said corps officials told investigators they no
longer considered seeking jurisdiction over many stretches of
water or wetlands partly because "they believe headquarters
does not want them to use this provision."

It is not clear exactly what proportion of the nation's
waterways are no longer protected from development as a result
of the new policy but the report said it could be considerable.
For example, Texas estimated that approximately 79 percent of
its 80,000 miles of rivers and streams would no longer be
subject to federal regulations.

In appendixes to the GAO report, both the Secretary of the
Army and the EPA generally accepted its findings and said they
were devising better procedures to improve the consistency and
openness of their decision making.