Wetlands rules could hang streams out to dry

Trout Unlimited letter to Ritter points out flaws with federal regs

http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20071003/NEWS/71003004

By BOB BERWYN

Summit Daily News
Summit County, CO Colorado
 

October 3, 2007
SUMMIT COUNTY — New rules outlining federal control over impacts to wetlands have caused one environmental group to write a letter to Governor Ritter.

Only about 25 percent of the state’s streams and rivers flow year-round, while the rest are seasonal. Along with isolated wetlands, they could be completely stripped of protection under the new rules, Trout Unlimited wrote in July, calling on Ritter to support the federal Clean Water Restoration Act. The bill would offer crucial protection for streams and wetlands. especially in arid states like Colorado, according to Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited advocates for conservation of cold-water fisheries, including reaches in Summit County that provide habitat for native cutthroat trout. These are fed by high-altitude wetlands and streams, which Colorado Trout Unlimited executive director Dave Nickum said would suffer through a “significant” decrease of federal protection — even thought the exact interpretation of the rules are still being debated.

“If we don’t protect the headwaters, how can we protect water quality downstream?” Nickum asked. The new guidance is written so narrowly that it doesn’t take into account the way watersheds work, he added. This counters the emerging trend of watershed-based planning, he added.

At issue is whether the Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over seasonal streams that aren’t directly connected to “navigable” waterways. In a 2001 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards, essentially requiring federal agencies to consider whether a wetland or stream has a direct connection to interstate commerce. That could call into question the Corp’s ability to regulate impacts to isolated beaver ponds around areas like Montezuma or willow wetlands in the headwaters of the Blue River, south of Breckenridge.

In Summit County, “the next navigable river is the Colorado at Grand Junction,” Nickum said. In his eyes, the new guidance places the burden on federal agencies to prove that “impacts to a single draw don’t affect water quality downstream.”

As they stood before the guidance was issued, federal wetlands rules have been a “cornerstone” of the cuntry’s modern environmental protection programs. At worst, the new rules would also cut or eliminate environmental reviews and public involvement on decisions affecting wetlands, Nickum said.

One solution might come from Congress, which is considering a Clean Water Restoration Act. The bill would remove the word “navigable” to clarify that the Clean Water Act is principally intended to protect the nation’s waters from pollution, and not just maintain navigability.

The legislation would restore the regulatory status quo prior to the SWANCC ruling; it does not create “new” protective authority. The bill has been languishing in committee for several years, but has strong support from the environmental community.

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