Protecting wetlands is worth red tape

Teal in the Santee Delta. (File)

Contrary to the warnings of politicians around the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't particularly care what Americans do with their ditches and backyard mud puddles.

But the EPA is very concerned about protecting delicate natural wetlands and ensuring that all citizens have access to clean drinking water. Nonetheless, the agency's latest effort to carry out that mission has generated considerable controversy.

Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 raised questions about EPA jurisdiction over certain bodies of water under the Clean Water Act. The agency hopes to clear up confusion with a new rule that would more strictly delineate its authority to manage so-called intermittent streams and isolated wetlands, among other vital ecosystems.

Intermittent streams exist only seasonally or after rain, but they have permanent and clearly defined channels, banks and a high-water line. Isolated wetlands are cut off from larger water sources under normal conditions but can interact with other bodies through shallow subsurface flow or during periods of rain.

The broadness of those definitions sparked alarm - and hyperbole - from politicians and lobbying groups who contend that it represents a major overreach by the federal bureaucracy.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and Gov. Nikki Haley have joined colleagues from 15 states in signing a letter opposing the EPA rule change.

"Farmers would suddenly be burdened by excessive red tape. County governments would be straddled by costly regulations. These onerous regulations would treat a simple drainage ditch the same as 'navigable water' such as the Mississippi River," Mr. Wilson said in a press release opposing the change.

Such a drastic new imposition of federal authority would indeed be "onerous" - if it were actually the case.

But drainage ditches and farming practices are expressly excluded from EPA regulation under both the new rule and the larger Clean Water Act. Floodplains, groundwater and stock ponds are also generally exempted.

It's difficult to argue that the rule is much of an extension of EPA authority at all.

Certain businesses and developers may find themselves constrained by new EPA water regulations.

But they might also find that more explicit rules save them the hassle and expense of determining whether or not a project requires an EPA permit.

And it's important to remember what the Clean Water Act defends: safe drinking water and critical natural ecosystems.

Trying to rein in federal bureaucracy is the prerogative of Gov. Haley and Mr. Wilson - and it's generally a worthy cause - but the modified rules don't pose a threat to the republic.

Rather, those changes acknowledge that protecting water resources in a necessity, particularly in the face of unrelenting development.