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The Worth of Water

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As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threatens to scale back the federal law that protects our nation's waters, we are reminded of a Scottish proverb: "We'll never know the worth of water 'til the well goes dry." In this case, we may not know the value of our "Sportsman's Paradise" until it is almost gone -- thanks to proposed rollbacks of the 30-year-old Clean Water Act.

In January, the EPA rewrote parts of the Clean Water Act on orders from the Bush Administration. That action came in response to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that questioned whether the act was designed to protect "isolated" or "non-navigable" waterways. The High Court's ruling didn't specify what qualifies a wetland for federal protection, though, and the Bush Administration jumped at the chance to provide its own interpretation.

The EPA's new rules would cease to protect "non-navigable" intrastate waters and wetlands -- those not connected to another waterway on the surface. By the EPA's own estimation, this change would remove about 20 percent of the nation's wetlands from federal protection. Critics call that figure conservative.

According to the National Association of State Wetland Managers, Louisiana would be among the states most dramatically affected by the proposals. So-called "isolated" wetlands serve as a valuable line of defense for Louisiana in both flooding and erosion control. They provide habitat for wildlife and filter pollution before it enters larger bodies of water. For these reasons, national organizations from Ducks Unlimited to the Sierra Club have opposed the changes.

In a letter to the EPA, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary James Jenkins Jr. expressed dismay that the act would no longer protect the small, isolated water bodies favored by migrating ducks and geese. "Louisiana is the most important waterfowl wintering area in the U.S.," he wrote. Jenkins joined officials from dozens of states -- many with Republican governors -- in opposing the EPA's changes. He noted that waterways that may not be connected by surface water are usually "hydrologically connected," or linked via groundwater. An excess of pollution in these wetlands would naturally seep into irrigation ponds, reservoirs, drinking-water wells, swamps, bayous, lakes, rivers -- and ultimately the ocean. Plus, as we've seen during spring floods and other high-water events, weather variations can rapidly transform "isolated" marshes and ponds into a broad network of water bodies connected through flooded surface waters.

Jenkins expressed particular concern about the "prairie potholes" slated to be stricken from the Clean Water Act. These small ponds and marshes caused by spring downpours and flooding sustain the nation's migratory birds, providing nesting areas and food sources. "America's waterfowl resources are dependent on protection of small, spatially isolated wetlands such as those found in the prairie pothole region," Jenkins argued in his letter.

These proposed new EPA regulations appear to be based not on science, but on the interests of developers eager to drain wetlands. As Jenkins noted, many of the "isolated" wetlands that would lose federal protection "are privately owned and would quickly be converted to other uses."

Ironically, this "business-friendly" policy would have a potentially devastating effect on two of Louisiana's largest industries: tourism and fisheries. According to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 104,000 people hunted ducks and geese during the 2000-01 season, and they spent more than $150 million on hunting-related goods and services during that time. Wetlands loss also would hurt Louisiana's fishing industry, the largest in the lower 48 states.

Last week, Louisiana officials presented a U.S. Geological Surveys (USGS) study to President Bush's environmental advisor, Jim Connaughton, illustrating that Louisiana's coastline is disappearing more rapidly than anyone had previously estimated. About 1,900 square miles had eroded between 1932 and 2000, USGS says. The state has spent more than $4 million in the past decade to combat coastal erosion. To remove wetlands protection at this stage would counter every effort that's been made to slow the disappearance of Louisiana's coast.

Both chambers of Congress have launched attempts to impede the EPA proposals. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., sponsored SB 473 (the "Clean Water Authority Restoration Act"), which would replace the term "navigable waters" in the Clean Water Act with "waters of the United States." The bill awaits action by the Committee on Environment and Public Works. An identical bill, HR 962, was introduced in the House.

We urge Louisiana's congressional delegation, particularly Sens. Mary Landrieu and John Breaux, to back this important legislation, and we encourage everyone concerned about wetlands protection to contact their representatives in Congress to advocate the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act. The value of public uproar has already been proven at the EPA. In 2001, then-EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman attempted to increase the allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water. Public outcry prevailed. Whitman resigned last week, and it's unknown to what extent her replacement (who had not been named at press time) will fight to support the proposed changes. We only hope enough people truly realize the worth of our water -- before the well runs dry.

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