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Southeast leads U.S. in wetlands losses

Where 10 acres of unproductive farmland once was tilled, Marion County farmer Ed Martin created a shallow pond similar to the wetland that previously existed there.
/ Source: The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Where 10 acres of unproductive farmland once was tilled, Marion County farmer Ed Martin created a shallow pond similar to the wetland that previously existed there.

The pond provides a habitat for ducks, quail and other wildlife, Mr. Martin said.

"Seventy-five years ago it was a wetland," he said. "We're putting it back to how it was."

Mr. Martin manages the reclaimed wetland through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provides him with an annual rental payment for his practices.

Recent trends show the Southeast leads the nation in wetland losses, according to Tom Welborn with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Southeast also has the most wetlands in the lower 48 states, he said.

Wetlands provide a habitat for plants and wildlife. They also provide flood control and help decrease erosion and improve water quality, officials said.

But nationwide, more than half of the nation's wetlands have been drained, according to EPA statistics. The latest EPA numbers show Tennessee has lost about 59 percent of its wetlands, Georgia 23 percent and Alabama 50 percent.

President Bush announced last month he would not issue a new rule reducing federal regulatory jurisdiction over wetlands.

The administration had begun soliciting public comment on the proposed change in January 2003, but environmentalists said the proposal would reduce federal protection for wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

Dick Urban, head of the Tennessee Water Pollution Control Division in Chattanooga, said any change in federal authority would not affect the state's wetlands because they still would be protected under the state's Water Quality Control Act.

"Nothing about the change in federal authority is going to affect the involvement of the state," he said.

Georgia, Alabama and other states do not have such strong state laws regulating wetlands, officials said.

Chris DeScherer, an attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center's Atlanta office, said Georgia and Alabama depend on federal protection for wetlands.

"The only protection we have is the federal Clean Water Act," he said. "If you remove the federal protection, there is literally nothing standing in the way of wetlands and development."

Keith Parsons, an environmental specialist with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the state doesn't have regulations specific to wetlands, but "wetlands are waters of the state and as a result they can be managed under regulations we have for our waters."

A 2001 Supreme Court ruling found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should abandon its authority over isolated wetlands that have no connection to other bodies of water except for the presence of migratory birds.

In January 2003, EPA and the Corps of Engineers issued guidelines to their field offices to carry out the court's decision, according to a news release from the two agencies.

Mr. Parsons said around the same time the guidelines were issued, the Bush administration began working on a broader plan that indicated an intent to relinquish further federal control over headwater streams and all isolated wetlands.

Mr. Parsons said Bush's decision last month stopped this plan, but the guidelines the EPA and Corps of Engineers issued remain in place.

"(President Bush) was drawing something that had no legal teeth to it yet," he said. "The regulatory guidance letter still has legal teeth."

Bush's decision was a victory for many conservation groups and sportsmen groups, who contend the wildlife-sustaining wetlands are vital habitats.

Charlie Lowery, the regional director for Ducks Unlimited in Athens, Tenn., said wetlands are an important stopping place for migrating ducks.

He said the group's Matching Aid to Restore States Habitat program raises money to buy property where wetlands can be reclaimed. Eight percent of the money raised goes back to the state for marsh projects, he said.

"There's been a lot of wetlands drained over the years for farmland. We'll like to restore some of those so the birds will have some place to stay," he said.

E-mail Angie Herrington at