The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced a proposed rule to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act as it relates to wetlands and other important watershed features.
This long overdue rulemaking to define “waters of the U.S.” responds to confusion created in a muddled Supreme Court ruling back in 2006. In Rapanos v. United States, the justices split three ways in their interpretation of the law.
As is the case these days with virtually anything the EPA does, the announcement was instantly condemned as overreach by a number of Republican lawmakers — along with the special interests that have been benefitting from the confusion.
Before my fellow Republicans start down the path of trying to block this rule, there are a few considerations that, in the interest of prudence and fiscal sanity, they should be mindful of.
First of all, this rule does not break new ground. For more than 30 years the Clean Water Act was clearly interpreted by Congress, the courts and the administrations of every president since its enactment, to include all of our nation’s important surface waters.
Even with that clear understanding by the agencies charged with administering the law, the nation still lost wetlands at a rate of 60,000 acres per year. Since Rapanos, the rate of wetlands loss has averaged more than 80,000 acres per year.
Secondly, the notion that this proposed rule infringes on private property rights and represents some kind of “land grab” just doesn’t hold water. The Clean Water Act protects people’s rights and their property.
President Ronald Reagan perhaps said it best when, speaking of the Clean Water Act and other landmark environmental laws, he noted that: “Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution.”
What Reagan so effectively captured in that comment is the interconnected nature of resources like water and air. What happens upstream in a watershed directly impacts all of the people who live, work and play downstream.
Wetlands trap, store, filter and slowly release storm water. They protect downstream property owners from pollution, flooding and even drought. If I pave over a wetland to build a strip mall I remove that protection and those downstream bear the consequences. It is indeed a trespass.
An equally important consideration, one that is too often overlooked, is how critical wetlands are to the nation’s fiscal health — and to American taxpayers.
Wetlands, along with other vital watershed features, protect water quality, reduce flooding, replenish aquifers and maintain stream flow. Best of all, they provide these services for free. When wetlands are lost to development, so too are the free services they once provided.
This inevitably leads to costly infrastructure projects, which include dams, levees, diversion channels, storm sewers,and sewage treatment plant upgrades, to replace those lost services.
Not only are taxpayers on the hook for the initial construction of this infrastructure, but for maintaining it over time. It is a budget obligation and a taxpayer burden that never goes away — not for us, not for our children, not for our grandchildren, not for any subsequent generation.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that over the next two decades alone, it will cost roughly $2 trillion to adequately maintain the nation’s existing flood control, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.
Even with more expensive flood control projects than we can afford, flooding and flood-related damage continue to rise. Flood levels historically witnessed once every 100 years are now showing up much more often.
With additional flooding comes increased property loss, more federal disaster assistance, and higher flood insurance costs.
Fiscal conservatives should be the ones leading the charge to reverse this trend and make wetlands protection a higher priority.
The first President George Bush, recognizing the importance of wetlands for everything from flood control to hunting, adopted a “no net loss” policy for wetlands. And while that has been the stated goal of every administration since, we continue to lose wetlands at an alarming rate.
The regulatory confusion stemming from the Rapanos decision has only sped up that loss, making the rule proposed by EPA and the Corps both reasonable and necessary.
Interest groups that oppose the rule, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers, are letting short-sighted parochial interests trump sound judgment.
Our nation’s federal agencies and its elected lawmakers are entrusted to look at wetlands protection through different lenses; through the wider lens of collective public interests, and the longer lens of fiscal sustainability.
We have already lost over half of the wetlands that existed when our nation was founded. We simply cannot afford to lose those that remain.
Sherwood Boehlert is a Republican who represented New York’s 24th District in Congress from 1983 to 2007 and was Chairman of the House Science Committee. He is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.