- study after study showed that the loss of wetlands to development increased the risk of flooding in coastal areas.
- The 47-page report can be basically reduced to a few words: The corps isn't doing a very good job of making sure there is no net loss of wetlands.
- It is a particularly disappointing conclusion for a president who has echoed the pledge of his father -- the first President Bush -that there should be "no net loss" of wetlands in the United States. President George W. Bush vowed last year that wetland areas would be increased under his administration.
Hurricane Katrina sent a powerful message on the importance of wetlands. Even before Katrina's arrival, study after study showed that the loss of wetlands to development increased the risk of flooding in coastal areas.
On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, issued a report on the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency -- the two agencies that have jurisdiction over much of the nation's wetlands.
The 47-page report can be basically reduced to a few words: The corps isn't doing a very good job of making sure there is no net loss of wetlands.
"The corps is generally not asserting jurisdiction over isolated, intrastate, nonnavigable waters using its existing authority," the study concluded.
It is a particularly disappointing conclusion for a president who has echoed the pledge of his father -- the first President Bush -that there should be "no net loss" of wetlands in the United States. President George W. Bush vowed last year that wetland areas would be increased under his administration.
The report noted that although corps' officials said that the nonet-loss program is "a key component of this program, the corps has consistently neglected to ensure that the mitigation it has required as a condition of obtaining a permit has been completed." Instead, the corps sees the processing of permit applications as its priority.
Nor are things being done much differently than in previous decades, said the report: "In 1988 and 1993, we reported that the corps was placing little emphasis on its compliance efforts, including compensatory mitigation, and little has changed. The corps continues to provide limited oversight of compensatory mitigation, largely relying on the good faith of permittees to comply with compensatory mitigation requirements."
Navis Bermudez, a New Orleans native who handles national wetlands issues for the Sierra Club, told Reuters news service that the GAO's report "confirms the administration is secretly pursuing a policy that favors developers and other industrial interests."
While dredging and filling and discharging into the "waters of the United States" is prohibited by the Clean Water Act without a permit from the corps, some of those waters are disputed. In 2001, the Supreme Court issued a decision saying the corps could not regulate isolated water bodies simply because they were used by migratory birds.
But the GAO report noted that under the Bush administration, the EPA and the corps scaled back its jurisdiction much further than required by the court decision.
The reduction of the corps' jurisdiction over wetlands was proposed in January 2003 by the Bush administration as part of a rulemaking change to the Clean Water Act. The public commenting period showed strong opposition to the change. Of the 135,000 comments, the vast majority favored federal protection for small streams, ponds and wetlands.
Environmental agencies from 39 states opposed the change; only those of three states supported them. Congress also weighed in with 218 members signing a letter to Bush urging him to leave the rules alone.
At the end of 2003, the administration said it had heard the voices of environmentalists, conservationists and hunters. The rulemaking change had been abandoned.
But several environmental groups noted that the GAO report showed that the administration had accomplished what it wanted without the rule change. "This administration is not very good at keeping promises made to the American people," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. "The president and his appointees promised not to change the Clean Water Act's rules, but they are shirking that responsibility by just ignoring those rules. In turn, they are breaking the promise of the Clean Water Act, which is to protect all of the nation's waters, to make them safe for drinking water, for swimming and fishing. This cannot be done when the corps leaves waters out of the law's scope."
The GAO said if the corps doesn't take its duties "more seriously, it will not know if thousands of acres of compensatory mitigation have been performed and will be unable to ensure that the (wetlands mitigation) program is contributing to the national goal of no net loss of wetlands."
The corps was given 30 days to respond to the report before GAO released it. Corps officials said they "generally concur" and are working to bring about reporting changes "so that full compliance with the Clean Water Act is encouraged, with the goal of increasing the effectiveness, efficiency and responsiveness" of the corps' program.
After so many years of neglect, a change would be welcome.