Cranberry Bog Feature

Noel Net Loss

As friends and family gather for the holidays, I’m reminded of certain water policy rituals that once played out, like clockwork in December in the nation’s capital, and I’m asking myself this question: Whatever happened to the “no net loss” of wetlands policy?

I have clear memories of policy battles waged in December 2002, 2003, and 2004 over wetlands and “other waters of the U.S.”  At the time, I was serving at EPA in the Office of Water and questions were swirling over whether the Bush Administration would improve wetlands mitigation and protection policies, go forward with a rulemaking on Clean Water Act jurisdiction to respond to the Supreme Court’s  2001 decision (Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, aka SWANCC), and whether to embrace the “no net loss goal” supported by previous Administrations.

What is the No Net Loss policy?  EPA and other federal agency documents, as well as materials by various advocacy groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, sum it up this way:  Its goal is to balance overall wetland loss due to economic development and other factors with wetlands protection, mitigation, and restorations efforts, so that the total acreage of wetlands in the country does not decrease, but remains constant or increases. To achieve the objective of no net loss, the federal government uses various environmental policy tools, some regulatory and some non-regulatory.

President George H.W. Bush put a priority on wetlands and embraced, in 1989, a national “no net loss goal” based on recommendations of the National Wetlands Policy Forum in 1988. The Clinton Administration embraced the goal and made important updates and clarifications to regulatory and nonregulatory aspects.  The George W. Bush Administration not only reaffirmed the no net loss policy (such as when it released in December 2002 the national wetlands mitigation action plan and a 2008 mitigation banking rule) but went a step further, articulating a national  “overall gain goal” which included a metric of a net gain of 100,000 acres by 2009.  The Bush Administration also ordered the National Wetlands Inventory to occur every 5 years rather than every 10 years to improve understanding and management of the resource.  Critics would also point out some regulatory disappointments along the way involving guidance and enforcement decisions.

What’s happened “recently”? The Obama Administration has continued to embrace the policy and update statistics on progress towards the goals.  Also, there’s a lot of deserved attention towards coastal wetlands loss, whether in Louisiana and other Gulf coast states, and in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, due to recent storms such as Hurricane Sandy.

Perhaps the most important news on “No Net Loss” came last year.  The U.S. Department of Interior released its five year survey, under the National Wetlands Inventory.  Secretary Ken Salazar, along with Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe, delivered the encouraging/discouraging news:  “While we have made great strides in conserving and restoring wetlands since the 1950s when we were losing an area equal to half the size of Rhode Island each year, we remain on a downward trend that is alarming.” The net wetland loss was estimated to be 62,300 acres between 2004 and 2009, bringing the nation’s total wetlands acreage to just over 110 million acres in the continental U.S., excluding Hawaii and Alaska (which has 165 million acres).  According to the Interior press release on October 6, 2011: “The rate of gains from reestablishment of wetlands increased by 17 percent from the previous study period (1998 to 2004), but the wetland loss rate increased 140 percent during the same time period.  As a consequence, national wetland losses have outpaced gains.”

What are some positive steps worth taking?  One is to invest in the measurement of wetlands functions and values.  EPA and other federal agencies should make more progress on the quality front, although it’s much easier to simply measure quantity through acreage.  Regulatory clarifications and Farm Bill conservation incentives have to be in the mix as well.  State and local leadership is of the utmost importance as so many aspects of wetlands protection depend on local land use decisions.

Regulatory battles will no doubt continue.  Sometimes the confrontation plays out in specific contexts like cranberry bogs, cooling ponds, and linear crossings such as pipelines and roadways.  The spotlight on the broader stage also continues to shine on “waters of the U.S.” draft guidance and the potential for a new rulemaking by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in the second term of the Obama Administration.

Wetlands are at the heart of our natural heritage and environmental future. They are one of the keys to success in the green infrastructure movement, whether you’re talking river basins or urban watersheds. In an era of concern over climate change, water sustainability, coastal resiliency, and ecosystem health, it makes environmental and economic sense to embrace  a national  “no net loss” policy and a national  net gain goal.  If for no other reason, do it for the ducks.

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