No version of “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS), part of the Clean Water Act, adequately protects the nation’s natural areas.
By Sam Davis
The recent decision by the Supreme Court to look into “limiting the scope” of “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS), which is an important part of the Clean Water Act of 1972, is likely to further threaten America’s biodiverse ecosystems. The Clean Water Act refers to WOTUS but does not clearly define it, leaving its definition up for interpretation by the government and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the Supreme Court. The lack of clarity over this federal law has virtually stripped U.S. wetlands from any protection, which could have far-reaching environmental impacts as we try to mitigate the additional challenges posed by climate change.
This recent decision by the court has turned WOTUS into a battleground. The rule has been highly controversial since 2015 because the EPA under then-President Barack Obama decided to tweak the definition so it covered more types of bodies of water and afforded protection to them. The Trump administration, meanwhile, swung starkly in the other direction, attempting to remove protections for wetlands that had been historically included under rulemaking in the 1980s and 1990s.
Unfortunately, even though 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 the Clean Water Act was written, the authors carved out a big exemption for logging, road construction and agricultural activities—such as pesticide application, constructing ponds and planting or harvesting with heavy machinery.
This means that if there’s a wetland downstream of regular farming activities, the wetland may get zero protection under the law. Also, in an instance where there’s a wetland between a paved road and a forest, and the owner wants to trade trees for cash, there are few to no legal obstacles preventing the sale.
Unfortunately, defending or even updating WOTUS will not stop the proposed mining activities in the forested wetland in Georgia to cause massive destruction there, which will happen if Twin Pines Minerals is allowed to mine near the Okefenokee Trail Ridge. Nor will WOTUS automatically stop your local developer from draining a wetland—the rule will just make them jump through some hoops first before the permission is eventually granted.
WOTUS Doesn’t Prevent Wetland Loss
If you’re planning to change your land in a way that impacts the bodies of water nearby, you must get a permit. Permits allow a project to proceed, but often require some sort of mitigation. For example, pollution controls might be installed, or new wetlands might be built.
Some scientists have examined whether or not permitting eventually helps maintain wetlands, and have found troubling things. One study found that there was a net loss of wetlands despite permits mandating the creation of compensatory wetlands; they also found that the types of wetlands being created were not the same type as those that were being 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 major types of activities that have substantial impacts on natural water quality: logging and agriculture. There are decades of peer-reviewed research about the impacts of logging on water quality. So while the government authorities and those drafting the act must have been aware of the negative impacts of these activities on water quality, they just didn’t seem to care.
Logging destroys soil: It’s exposed to full sunlight, it’s compressed and it’s more likely to break apart under pressure. Dry, compressed soil doesn’t clean or absorb water the way that it should. This soil can cause sedimentation in nearby waterways. Sedimentation can contaminate drinking water and provide opportunities for harmful algal blooms to flourish.
There Are No Substantive Rules on Logging
The logging 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 log without affecting water quality. These rules are nothing more than a piecemeal approach to ensuring that logging activities can be carried out uninterrupted.
There are no substantive rules relating to logging in the U.S. South. If you own land, you can clear-cut—no permit required. Even on state and federal lands, it is easy to clear-cut to produce revenue for the landholding organization, especially if it’s justified with tenuous arguments of wildfire prevention.
Our Forests Are a Free-for-All
The United States is the world’s largest consumer and producer of wood products. These wood products are extracted mostly from the U.S. South. Some, like building materials, can be considered necessary. Others, like single-use cups and dirty wood pellets being passed off as “green” energy, are not.
The South has been turned from beautiful native forests into rows upon rows of fast-growing pine plantations. In North Carolina alone, more than 200,000 acres of forests are logged every year, the equivalent of more than 400 football fields a day of forest destruction. Logging is the number one cause of carbon emissions from U.S. 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 huge impacts on water quality, and the rate and scale of logging in the United States create a staggeringly 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 is a need for commonsense rules for water quality in the United States. It affects rural communities across the South who rely on wells and septic systems for home water management. It affects all Americans’ ability to enjoy the natural areas around them.
Restoring basic WOTUS protections is a start. But to completely ignore the exemptions that the Clean Water Act provides to logging and agriculture—two of the largest polluting industries—is to do a disservice to future generations.
Environmental organizations like mine, the Dogwood Alliance, have worked to spread public awareness and get people to submit public comments, join protests and call 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 | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Sam Davis is a conservation scientist with Dogwood Alliance who works at the intersection of forests, climate and justice.