Karen Cappiella and Lisa Fraley-McNeal
Center for Watershed Protection
Over the past 30 years, the primary authority protecting our nation’s water bodies from being filled, polluted, or otherwise degraded has been the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Many states, tribes, and local governments rely solely on this federal authority to protect their local wetland resources. Over the past six years, controversial court decisions have eroded this federal authority, potentially restricting the scope of the CWA by significantly reducing the types of streams and wetlands that can now be federally regulated. This includes the very smallest streams and wetlands that do not have a permanent surface water connection to larger waterbodies, yet are still vital parts of the ecosystem. To fill these gaps, states, tribes, and local governments, particularly in areas with extensive vulnerable streams and wetlands, will need to improve their regulatory and non-regulatory efforts.
This article makes the case for why expanded state and local protection of vulnerable streams and wetlands is critical to maintain the important ecologic, hydrologic, water quality and biodiversity functions that our small streams and wetlands provide. It first defines and examines the extent of vulnerable streams and wetlands across the country, and summarizes research on the benefits they provide. Next, it evaluates what makes these streams and wetlands vulnerable – specifically, erosion of federal protection due to recent court rulings, and threats and impacts from land development. Finally, it summarizes the various approaches states are taking to enhance protection and outlines some local strategies for protection of these resources. Articles 2, 3, and 4 of this series provide additional tools that local governments can use to protect all types of wetlands from the impacts of land development in their watersheds.