SELC Calls for Stronger Protections for Southeastern Wetlands in Comments to EPA

Washington, DC—The Southern Environmental Law Center filed comments today on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) proposed rule to clarify what streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act.

On behalf of over 40 environmental and conservation groups, SELC has submitted comments making the case that depressional wetlands, such as crater-like Carolina bays found on the Southeastern coastal plain, should be covered under the final rule as a category of waters of the United States to avoid the need for case-by-case determinations. 

“This is the most significant federal rulemaking on water protections in three decades and defines the scope of the Clean Water Act, so it’s imperative that stronger protections for depressional wetlands are incorporated into the final rule,” said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Solidifying protections that Carolina bays and other types of wetlands already enjoy under the Act will better preserve the health of downstream waters.”

EPA reports that over 117 million people in the U.S., more than one third of the population, get at least part of their drinking water from headwater, seasonal or rain-dependent streams, which can be connected to wetlands.

Wetlands, including “geographically isolated” Carolina bays in Georgia, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, provide critical habitats for fish and plant species and have important filtering qualities to protect downstream tributaries, rivers and wetlands from pesticides, sediment and other pollutants. Wetlands also play an important role in shielding communities from the impacts of flooding, as they hold and store water during storms.

The Science Advisory Board recently completed its final review of EPA’s Draft Connectivity Report and its review of the proposed rule, finding that depressional wetlands are connected in a significant way to streams and rivers. SELC’s comments include the results from a new report summarizing additional studies that further document these connections.

“We now have ample science to back up the connections between these waters and downstream traditional navigable waters,” said Navis Bermudez, Deputy Legislative Director of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Without adequate safeguards in place, the loss of geographically isolated wetlands could have far-reaching impacts on the ability to protect our communities from floods and to filter drinking water.”

The proposed rule will help clarify and restore protections for many waters currently at risk for pollution, not expand protections as opponents of the rule have misrepresented.

The proposed rule will not cover ponds or man-made waterways that were never covered by the law, will exclude ditches constructed through dry lands that do not contain water year-round, and for the first time, the rule specifically excludes stock watering and irrigation ponds constructed in dry lands. All historical exemptions and exclusions for agriculture and forestry will be kept in place under the proposed rule.

“Clean water supports a number of prominent industries in the Southeast, from the huge commercial and recreational fishing industries on our coasts, to farming, irrigation and watering livestock,” said Sapp. “Clarifying and enforcing protections for these waters represents the basic interests of our citizens in having access to clean drinking water, and ensures that our region’s streams, lakes and rivers remain healthy.”

A copy of SELC’s comments can be found here.

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About Southern Environmental Law Center:

The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of over 60 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org

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