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The Nation

Corps of Engineers Relaxes Wetland Protections

January 15, 2002|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration weakened federal protections for wetlands on Monday, making it easier for developers to build on land where streams flow part of the year.

This was one of several changes the Army Corps of Engineers made to wetland regulations that specify when developers can seek "nationwide permits," which are shortcuts that enable them to begin their projects more quickly and with fewer restrictions.

For example, the new rules could allow a developer, using a shortcut permit, to fill in 1,000 feet of a 20-foot-wide seasonal stream. Under the old rules, the limit was 300 feet.

The corps had proposed a more extensive rollback of wetland rules in its draft report in August but curtailed those plans amid intense criticism from inside and outside the government.

Corps officials in Washington and Los Angeles said new rules represent a limited shift and that the agency is committed to protecting the health of the nation's waterways and wetlands.

"The changes are quite minor," said John Studt, chief of regulations at the corps.

Environmentalists disagree, calling the changes further proof that the Bush administration is systematically weakening rules created to protect the nation's dwindling supply of wetlands, swamps and stream beds. Wetlands are key to the welfare of fish and waterfowl and also help cleanse water and control flooding.

The Clean Water Act gives the corps the authority to decide when and how to issue permits allowing developers to destroy wetlands and streams. Such fragile landscapes can be especially attractive to developers because they offer the allure of water views or access. But the United States already has lost more than half its historic wetlands, making the corps' power to grant permits a lightning rod for environmentalists.

The new rule on so-called intermittent streams would allow a developer to fill more stream area with less red tape.

This rule could have a significant effect in California, where wildlife and plants depend on the temporary flow of storm runoff and seasonal flows to stay alive.

The corps also eased a rule requiring developers to protect or create one acre of wetlands for every acre they destroy. Instead, corps engineers will have the authority to waive the requirement altogether, or to allow developers to plant trees instead of restoring wetlands.

"California in particular needs to be worried about these rule changes, because California has lost over 91% of our wetlands already, more than any other state," said Kevin Doyle, director of habitat conservation programs for the National Wildlife Federation's western field office. "When is the corps going to put its foot down?"

Before the corps announced its plans, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency joined environmentalists in complaining that the new rules could endanger wetlands.

The corps reinstated some of the environmental protections that had been removed in the draft version, which would have given district engineers the authority to allow quicker permitting for all streams--even ones that flow year-round.

The agency also said it remained committed to the goal of preventing a net loss of wetlands. Although the agency gave its 37 district engineers leeway to let developers destroy existing wetlands without creating or restoring other wetlands elsewhere, it also ordered these same engineers to document that there would be no net loss of wetlands in their districts.

Some districts are small, encompassing several counties, but others include several states. The Los Angeles district stretches east into New Mexico.

Developers welcomed what they said is much-needed flexibility in the rules, and they said they are hoping the administration will continue to roll back onerous regulations.

"California home builders need as much flexibility as possible to build homes," said Brian White, legislative representative for the California Building Industry Assn. "We look forward to working with the administration for more changes."

Intermittent stream beds are filled by seasonal rainfall and ground water. About 10% of the Southern California streams feeding into the ocean are intermittent, according to the corps' L.A. office.

Most of Southern California's streams are so-called ephemeral streams--dry washes that flow only after storms. Most of the state's intermittent streams are found in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.

Mark Durham, South Coast section chief in the regulatory branch of the corps' Los Angeles district office, defended the change in the rules, saying the old 300-foot limit on filling intermittent streams was impractical.

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Shogren reported from Washington, Schoch from Los Angeles.

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