Diluting wetland protections 

In a move that constitutes the third recent weakening of the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corp of Engineers announced June 5 that intermittent streams and adjacent wetlands may no longer qualify for federal protections.

The agencies’ new rule says streams that dry up for part of the year will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they’re important enough to fall under the Clean Water Act. The shift particularly matters in states like Montana, where about 70 percent of stream miles are intermittent. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports that Montana has about 53,000 miles of streams and rivers that run year-round, but about 117,000 miles of intermittent waterways.

“I feel like the stakes are very high here,” says Lynda Saul, wetland program manager for Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “There are broad impacts to the Clean Water Act because so many of our waterways are intermittent and so many wetlands depend on them.”

Matt Clifford, conservation director and staff attorney for Missoula’s Clark Fork Coalition, says Montana’s Water Quality Act offers some protections to the Montana waterways at stake, and Saul says DEQ is working to develop ways to fill the widening gap between state and federal protections.

“Just because it’s not a stream for 365 days a year doesn’t mean it’s not important to fish and wildlife,” Clifford says. “[The EPA’s rule] just doesn’t make any sense…it’s based on this fiction that our waters aren’t all connected.”

Saul says DEQ is also lobbying for state support of a U.S. House bill recently introduced by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., that would restore Clean Water Act protections abridged by Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006.

While the EPA’s press release says its new rule “reinforces the Bush Administration’s commitment to protect and enhance the quality of our nation’s wetlands and water bodies,” Saul points out that “this is the same administration that counts golf course waterhazards as net gains of wetlands.”
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