In the past four years, the United States has drastically cut back on its protection of waterways and wetlands, whose erosion was cited as a factor in the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Requested by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the report released Tuesday examined how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency assert jurisdiction over many of the nation’s waterways and wetlands.
Environmental groups criticized government practices discussed in the report.
“Losses of wetlands in many areas in the United States are unprecedented, yet the corps is allowing many of the remaining wetlands to be destroyed, in violation of its Clean Water Act obligations, without even trying to figure out why,” said Christy Leavitt of the environmental group U.S. PIRG.
Navis Bermudez of the Sierra Club said that “the GAO’s report confirms the administration is secretly pursuing a policy that favors developers and other industrial interests.”
Supreme Court ruling
Before 2001, the corps asserted jurisdiction over most waters, including isolated, nonnavigable waters, if migratory birds could use them. That meant that anyone wishing to build homes, shopping malls, offices or golf courses in such environments first had to obtain a permit from the corps.
However a Supreme Court decision in January 2001 concluded that the corps had exceeded its powers by seeking jurisdiction over such waters solely based on their use by birds.
The GAO report found that under the Bush administration the corps and the EPA had used that ruling as a reason to scale back its jurisdiction over waterways and wetlands much further than was required by the court decision.
“The corps is generally not asserting jurisdiction over isolated, intrastate, nonnavigable waters using its existing authority,” the report said.
Many scientists believe the loss of wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico to building and development contributed to the extent of the destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Wetlands soak up and slow storm water. Paving them over leaves the excess water with no place to go and exacerbates flooding.
U.S. waters redefined
The Clean Water Act prohibits most discharges of dredged or fill material into the “waters of the United States” without first obtaining a permit from the corps. The issue of whether or not the corps has jurisdiction over a particular stretch of water depends on how one defines the term “waters of the United States.” In 2003, the corps and the EPA issued a joint memorandum scaling back that definition to exclude virtually all nonnavigable waters.
The report said corps officials told investigators they no longer considered seeking jurisdiction over many stretches of water or wetlands partly because “they believe headquarters does not want them to use this provision.”
It is not clear exactly what proportion of the nation’s waterways are no longer protected from development as a result of the new policy but the report said it could be considerable. For example, Texas estimated that approximately 79 percent of its 80,000 miles of rivers and streams would no longer be subject to federal regulations.
In appendixes to the GAO report, both the Secretary of the Army and the EPA generally accepted its findings and said they were devising better procedures to improve the consistency and openness of their decision making.