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Wetlands More Important Now Than Ever

A bird in the wetlands

Wetlands are a natural resource, and I want to see them protected and expanded. More than ever, wetland conservation is essential.

In the early 1990s, Walmart opened its superstore, filling in some of the last wetlands on the seawall on Galveston Island near Greens Bayou. The other Walmart located on 61st Street was shut down. During the new Walmart’s construction, my home was located within a mile. The loss of those wetlands, which I had cherished and seen as a part of my home, was a devastating blow. My anger was also directed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE or the Corps) for their permit for the filling of wetlands. I mistakenly thought those wetlands were or could be protected.

USACE is a federal agency comprised mostly of Army civilians. In addition to its civil works activities (e.g., the seawall), emergency response operations, military construction, environmental restoration operations, and providing recreational opportunities, USACE regulates activities in our Nation’s wetlands. This regulatory authority was promulgated in the 1880s when Congress directed the Corps to prevent dumping and filling in our navigable waterways. Specifically, the Rivers and Harbors Act in 1899 established the Corps’ regulatory permit program to protect navigable waters in the development of harbors and other construction and excavation. In 1972, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act prescribed authority over wetlands and other valuable aquatic areas to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Corps.

Fast forward to present day, and I again live near Walmart, except I have recently gained knowledge I didn’t possess back then. What I understand today that I didn’t 30 years ago is that unless a conservation easement or deed restriction prohibits it, all wetlands can be filled. Sometimes mitigation is required in an effort to maintain “No Net Loss” of wetlands. However, recreating functional wetlands as part of rehabilitation projects doesn’t equate to protecting existing functional wetlands.

In May 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Sackett ruling (Sackett v. EPA), which removed a large portion of our Nation’s wetlands from the Corps’ jurisdiction, rendering them not “waters of the United States.” Wetlands with no continuous surface connections to bodies that are “waters of the United States” in their own right so that they are indistinguishable from those waters are no longer regulated by the federal government. Since 2001, the Sackett ruling is the latest in a series of 3 U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have limited the Corps’ and EPA’s jurisdiction over wetlands. In Texas, we have no state laws to protect our wetlands. Similarly, across the U.S., our county and city have no local laws to protect these special places from development.

Wetlands are areas of transition between aquatic and terrestrial habitats; they’re the in-betweens of oceans/rivers and land. A more precise definition for wetlands are those areas inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal conditions do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. The benefits of wetlands include providing habitat for wildlife, improving water quality, supporting commercial and sport fisheries, recharging aquifers, providing recreational opportunities, and reducing flood damage and erosion to property.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides periodical Reports to Congress on the status and trends of wetlands. Partially funded by the EPA and National Marine Fisheries Service, the series of reports dates back to the mid-1950s and provides scientific estimates of wetland areas in the conterminous United States. The decade from 2009 to 2019 is included in the most current Report, the 6th in the series. Wetland loss rates were estimated to have increased more than 50% since the previous report. Guidance includes a strategic update and a 4-part strategy focused on coordination to achieve “No Net Loss” of wetlands. Recommendations include enhancement of wetland conservation, development of management approaches incorporating holistic reviews, and commitment to long-term adaptive conservation, management, and monitoring of wetlands.

According to the Report’s preface to Members of Congress written by Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, “Wetlands enhance water quality, control erosion, maintain stream flows, sequester carbon, and provide a home to about half of all threatened and endangered species.” However, “…we are failing as a Nation to sufficiently protect our wetlands. … Wetland loss leads to the reduced health, safety, and prosperity of all Americans. When wetlands are lost, society loses services such as clean water; slowing of coastal erosion; protection against flooding, drought, and fire; and resilience to climate change and sea level rise. Wetland losses also cause declines in fish, wildlife, and plant populations that many in our communities depend upon to make a living, feed their families, and enjoy the outdoors. Each of us has a stake in the health of wetlands across our country. … We cannot afford to lose more wetlands.”

Galveston’s sea level rise is projected to be one of the fastest and highest. We are experiencing increases in storm intensities and flooding, even during sunny days. Our vegetated wetlands are becoming non-vegetated, even more so with continued rising sea levels. Development does not abate.

What can we islanders do? Let us join Secretary Haaland’s call to action to propose and enact stronger laws protecting wetlands. Galveston’s current policies and laws are not sufficient. The report warns, “These impacts can happen rapidly and are often difficult to reverse.” Investment in retaining our existing, ecologically functioning wetlands is the path forward for the benefit of all.


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