WASHINGTON – Congressional plans to reform the Clean Water Act would strip up to 70 percent of Maryland’s wetlands of their federal protection, a team of government scientists concluded after a series of field tests.
Researchers from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies determined that three-quarters of all wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed would lose protection under the proposed changes.
Wetlands – areas where the soil is saturated 14 consecutive days each year – act as a sieve for pollutants, preventing them from contaminating groundwater. They also provide a habitat for wildlife, including spawning grounds for fisheries.
A loss of wetland protection could lead to an increase in construction, farming and pollution, the study predicts. Some recreation areas and natural flood storage areas would be lost.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said Wednesday the changes would have severe effects on Maryland fisheries and on the quality of drinking water.
“Wetlands help to filter pollutants out of the water and recharge wells. People should look at roads and parking lots and roofs and think whether they want to drink water that comes right off the roof,” Gilchrest said.
Although there are wetlands throughout Maryland, Gilchrest said the Eastern Shore would be most adversely affected because its economy is so dependent on the Chesapeake Bay. “The bill would unravel the foundation on which our economy rests,” he said.
The House in May passed the bill to reform the two-decades- old act.
A similar bill is pending before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced the House bill to reduce environmental regulations and ease burdens on businesses and individuals.
“Our intent is to limit the federal regulation of property under the Clean Water Act to those areas that have a reasonable relationship to water,” said Michael Strachn, a senior staff member who helped draft the bill for Shuster.
“Under the current regulations, some areas are considered wetlands even if they have never been under water,” he said.
But Elizabeth Zucker, staff scientist for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said surface water is not necessary to support some species as long as the soil is saturated.
She criticized Shuster’s bill for categorizing wetlands according to their importance. She said wetlands vary in their environmental and aesthetic assets.
“It’s a very subjective decision to say what is a high-value wetland,” Zucker said.
Areas included in the top category would receive fairly good protection under the proposal, but few wetlands fall into that category, Zucker said.
To qualify, soil would have to be under water for 21 consecutive days each year.
Under the existing law, an area is considered a wetland if its soil is saturated 14 consecutive days each year.
Zucker said Shuster’s bill also would allow builders and farmers to require a redetermination of a wetland designation at any time.
“This will result in thousands and thousands of applications for permits to use the land,” Zucker said. “The whole point of the bill was to streamline the process, but this regulation is a bureaucratic nightmare.”
Robert Zepp, assistant supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service and a participant in the field testing, said other wetlands would be lost under the Senate bill’s proposal that areas have to be larger than one-half acre to be protected.
“We have a lot of small important wetlands everywhere in the state,” he said.
But business owners who are affected by the Clean Water Act said they hope Congress will approve the changes soon.
“We deal with lots of bureaucratic laws and regulations,” said Martin Prinz, who develops residential subdivisions for Site Midatlantic on the Eastern Shore.
He said many areas protected now do not provide any wetland functions. “There are some man-made ditches in a farm field, depressions about 6 inches deep. This ditch wasn’t here three years ago, but we have to protect it,” Prinz said. -30-