The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced much-anticipated regulations to guide the restoration of wetlands and streams around the country. "The implications are huge," says Melissa Samet, a water resources analyst at American Rivers, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Although Samet and others are just beginning to analyze the regulations, they are concerned that the standards will not require sufficient restoration to offset the continued destruction of wetlands.
Under the Clean Water Act, any activity that might harm wetlands or streams must be reviewed by the Corps of Engineers. If damage is unavoidable, the property owner must compensate by either creating new wetlands or restoring existing wetlands elsewhere. The goal is no net loss of wetlands. In 2001, the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies determined that the corps was failing to meet that goal and that it needed better ways to assure the quality of wetlands restorations. After a Congressional request in 2003, the corps released a proposed rule in 2006. The draft was criticized by environmental groups for not being specific enough and giving too much discretion to the corps managers about whether to approve restoration projects.
The new rules set down performance standards, and they establish a priority system for types of restoration projects. If destruction can't be avoided, the agencies' preferred option is to have property owners contribute funds to a "mitigation bank"--a company that manages large wetlands in one place. The alternative is for landowners to undertake wetland creation or restoration themselves, near the construction site. "This rule greatly improves implementation, monitoring, and performance," said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at EPA, at a press teleconference today. He also said that the new regulations reduced the amount of discretion that managers can exercise and included provisions for public comment.
Wetlands lobbyist Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Virginia, welcomes nationwide standards but worries that they aren't explicit enough and won't lead to restoration projects that are ecologically successful. She isn't convinced that mitigation banking is necessarily better than on-site restoration. Furthermore, Sibbing maintains that the inclusion of stream restoration in the regulations, in addition to wetlands restoration, is premature because the science is less well-developed.