Quick Links
Discovery Guides Areas

  Environmental Policy Issues

History and Restoration Issues

(Released September 2003)



Key Citations

Web Sites


Contact Editor

Oozing slime, primordial muck, stinky black sludge teeming with microorganisms, gnawing mosquitoes and skittering bugs, yellow mold and wild reeds. Wetlands do far more than steal stray golf balls and Frisbees. They are a crucial part of the ecological chain, providing resting places for birds and habitats for an astounding variety of species, transforming runoff water from an environmental hazard to a productive part of the ecosystem, and helping to protect clean water.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) Issue Brief for Congress Wetland Issues (May 2002) explains the complex history of human interaction with wetlands, and the difficult issues surrounding these fundamental components of our ecosystem. The only legal definition of wetlands is imprecise; it lists soils, plants, and hydrology as the three components of wetlands, but does not include more specific criteria.

Until the 1980s the federal government acted in accordance with the notion that wetlands were part of a hostile wilderness that needed to be tamed. The Army Corps of Engineers, in particular, has a history of draining swamps, part of a long process of wetland reduction. Wetland area in the lower 48 states has declined from over 220 million acres in the 16th century to a current 105.5 million acres, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Only recently have the many benefits of wetlands come to be widely recognized. Besides providing habitats for birds and aquatic and threatened species, wetlands are useful for water storage and purification, flood prevention, timber and food production, education and research, and recreation. Nineteen seventy-two saw the passage of the most important act of wetland regulation, the €404 program of the Clean Water Act, which mandates permits for the release of dredged or fill materials into U.S. waters.

While the €404 program was part of a broader environmental movement, the Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986 signaled a new concern with protecting wetlands. Other important programs deal with agricultural policy, a crucial area since national surveys have indicated that agricultural activities are responsible for about 80% of wetland loss. The Swampbuster and Wetlands Reserve programs employ incentives and disincentives to protect wetlands. Beyond protection, the past decade has seen an important movement toward wetlands restoration.

Wetland protection measures have been subject to the conservation versus use argument so common in environmental issues. Conflict is especially intense because 75% of remaining U.S. wetlands are on private lands. Property owners and development interests consider current laws, especially the €404 program, to be overly intrusive. Many environmentalists complain of multiple, uncoordinated laws affecting wetlands, spread among different jurisdictions. Some question the utility of the €404 program, since it regulates only limited activities, excluding the draining of wetlands. The multiple purposes and numerous types of wetlands are also unrecognized by federal law.

Indeed, the one-size-fits-all approach to wetlands has been critiqued from all sides, and spurred calls for more coherent national standards. The situation is complicated by the many sizes, varieties, and geographic positions of areas called wetlands. Legislative proposals introduced in recent Congresses would establish three tiers, from highly significant areas in need of serious protection to the least valuable. Some states, notably New York, already employ such a scheme.

Isolated waters are one type of wetland for which protection has been questioned. In January of 2001 the Supreme Court ruled, in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that the Corps was not authorized to protect isolated wetlands. However it is currently unclear just which wetlands lose protection under this ruling, while an effort is under way in Congress to reverse it.

Recently, the federal government has stressed wetland restoration, particularly in order to mitigate loss. In Louisiana, the site of some 80% of total loss for U.S. coastal wetlands, efforts have been intense. The Florida Everglades are another area much noted for restoration. Mitigation banks, in which wetlands are created, restored, or enhanced in advance to serve as credits for future loss, are another notable trend.

One prominent wetland restoration plan is the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), discussed in the CRS Report South Florida Ecosystem Restoration and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (January 2003). The history of Florida's approach to the Everglades vividly illustrates the changing attitudes, and difficult issues, associated with wetlands.

A network of subtropical wetlands, the Everglades once extended from Orlando to Florida Bay. Hundreds of lakes flowed into the Kissimmee River, from which water ran south through 40,000 acres of marsh to Lake Okeechobee, which in turn poured into the Everglades. These wetlands were natural filters that recharged underground aquifers. It was a habitat like no other in which dwelt an enormous range of species.

Beginning in the 19th century, flood control and other hydrologic efforts spurred agriculture and development in South Florida. In 1948 Congress authorized the Corps Central and Southern Florida project for water management purposes, particularly to alleviate flooding. Under stress from management and development projects, the Everglades has dwindled to half its original size, resulting in severe habitat loss. Pollutants and runoff further threaten numerous plant and animal species.

Since 1993 many restoration activities have occurred, including land acquisition and a multi-species recovery plan, a crucial part of CERP. It is estimated that the plan will take 36 years and cost some $7.8 billion. CERP's principal goals include "getting the water right," re-establishing habitats and species, and integrating human and natural systems. The plan is to build an underground network of reservoirs and storage wells to catch freshwater. Excess water from the wet season will then be available for the dry season. Some critics, however, suggest that the plan may be unnecessarily expensive and complex.