The Supreme Court’s recent decision to review the “scope limitation” of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), which is an important part of the Clean Water Act of 1972, is likely to further threaten the biodiverse ecosystems of America. The Clean Water Act refers to WOTUS but does not clearly define it, leaving its definition to the interpretation of the government and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the Supreme Court. The lack of clarity in this federal law has virtually stripped US wetlands of any protections, which could have far-reaching environmental impacts as we try to mitigate the additional challenges posed by climate change.
This recent court ruling has turned WOTUS into a battleground. The rule has been highly controversial since 2015 because the EPA under then-President Barack Obama decided to change the definition so that it covers more types of water bodies and provides protection for them. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has drastically swung the other way, attempting to remove protections for wetlands that had historically been included in regulations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Unfortunately, while many people and environmental organizations, including my own, Dogwood Alliance, have taken action to protect wetlands, the WOTUS Rule does little to protect our forests or forested wetlands. When drafting the Clean Water Act, the authors provided a significant exemption for logging, road building, and agricultural activities, such as applying pesticides, building ponds, and planting or harvest with heavy machinery.
This means that if there is a wetland downstream from regular agricultural activities, the wetland may not have any protection under the law. Moreover, in a case where there is a wetland between a paved road and a forest, and the owner wants to exchange trees for cash, there are few or no legal obstacles preventing the sale.
Unfortunately, defending or even updating WOTUS will not stop proposed mining activities in the forested Georgia wetland from causing mass destruction there, which will occur if Twin Pines Minerals is permitted to mine near the crest of the Okefenokee Trail. . WOTUS also won’t automatically stop your local developer from draining a wetland – the rule will just make it jump through a few hoops before permission is finally granted.
WOTUS does not prevent wetland loss
If you plan to alter your land in a way that impacts nearby water bodies, you must obtain a permit. Permits allow a project to proceed, but often require some sort of mitigation. For example, pollution controls could be installed or new wetlands could be built.
Some scientists have looked at whether or not permission ultimately helps maintain wetlands and have found some troubling things. A study found that there was a net loss of wetlands despite permits requiring the creation of compensatory wetlands; they also found that the types of wetlands created were not the same type as those lost. Similar patterns have been found across the country.
Logging has significant impacts on water quality
The authors of the Clean Water Act exempted two broad types of activities that have substantial impacts on natural water quality: logging and agriculture. There are decades of peer-reviewed research on the impacts of logging on water quality. So, while government officials and drafters of the law must have been aware of the negative impacts of these activities on water quality, they just didn’t seem to care.
Logging destroys the soil: it is exposed to full sun, it is compressed and it is more likely to break under pressure. Dry, compressed soil does not clean or absorb water as it should. This soil can cause sedimentation in nearby waterways. Sedimentation can contaminate drinking water and promote harmful algal blooms.
There are no substantive rules on exploitation
The forest industry’s solution to the impacts of forestry activities on water quality is called “best management practices”. These are voluntary, state-by-state guidelines on how to connect without affecting water quality. These rules are nothing more than a piecemeal approach to ensure that logging activities can be carried out without interruption.
There are no substantive rules relating to logging in the southern United States. If you own land, you can clear cut without a permit. Even on state and federal lands, it is easy to clearcut to generate revenue for the land organization, especially if justified by tenuous forest fire prevention arguments.
Our forests are free for all
The United States is the world’s largest consumer and producer of wood products. These wood products are extracted primarily from the southern United States. Some, such as building materials, may be considered necessary. Others, like single-use cups and dirty wood pellets that are advertised as “green” energy, are not.
The South has been transformed from beautiful native forests to rows and rows of fast-growing pine plantations. In North Carolina alone, more than 200,000 acres of forest are logged each year, the equivalent of more than 400 football fields per day of forest destruction. Logging is the number one cause of carbon emissions from US forests, five times more than carbon emissions from fires, drought and insect damage combined.
WOTUS is important, but we need to do more
Logging has enormous impacts on water quality, and the rate and scale of logging in the United States creates an incredibly wide scope of the problem; and yet very little has been done to address it. The fight for WOTUS, while important, seems like a drop in the bucket.
There needs to be common sense rules for water quality in the United States. It affects rural communities in the South who depend on wells and septic tanks for household water management. This affects the ability of all Americans to enjoy the natural spaces around them.
Restoring basic WOTUS protections is a start. But to completely ignore the exemptions the Clean Water Act provides for logging and agriculture — two of the biggest polluting industries — is doing future generations a disservice.
Environmental organizations like my own, the Dogwood Alliance, have worked to raise awareness and get people to submit public comments, join protests, and call out their representatives. Without the voices of the American people supporting this movement, the nation’s wetlands will be turned into parking lots.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Lifea project of the Independent Media Institute.