What is a wetland?
Controversial ruling shines fresh light on definition

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Edition: FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1

The Post and Courier

It is easy for Dr. Jean Everett to see the forest for the trees. Slogging into the woods off Halfway Creek Road, she disappeared into a stand of longleaf pines in the Francis Marion National Forest. The senior biologist from the College of Charleston was eager to illustrate the importance of the isolated wetlands bill that's stalled in the Legislature.

The bill was endorsed by parties as diverse as the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Association of Realtors. It would require state Department of Health and Environmental Control permits for impacts to isolated wetlands of more than half an acre and mitigation of those impacts.

But if mitigation means turning the wetland into a stormwater retention pond, conservationists say the solution is still problematic.

Federal guidelines under the Bush administration allow man-made lakes and stormwater retention ponds to be considered wetlands, even though they might be full of pollution.

Walking into the forest with Everett and

Coastal Conservation League Land Use Director Jane Lareau, pines abruptly gave way to carnivorous pitcher plants and a stand of cypress trees rising from smooth, tea-colored waters. Before bounding into the isolated wetland in a pair of rubber boots, Everett said, "I have to tell you, there's a huge cottonmouth in here."

And that's not all.

Floating along the surface among the exposed cypress knees and lily pads were carnivorous plants called bladderworts. "These are very ecologically rich little ponds," she said.

Pristine spots such as this are primary watering and nesting spots for larger species of wildlife, including wood ducks, bobcats, black bears and all manner of birds.

Wetlands sideshow

What protections?

Like countless other unidentified isolated wetlands DHEC estimates cover more than 300,000 acres of the state, this tiny protected sanctuary is little more than a shallow indention in the landscape, unconnected to a larger stream or body of water.

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a portion of the Clean Water Act that covered these wetlands. This removed what conservationists consider crucial protections that apply to larger bodies of water, and left the decision on how to treat these parcels up to individual states or landowners.

According to Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, DHEC claims jurisdiction over isolated wetlands but its rules are not clearly drawn.

DHEC oversees development around isolated wetlands in the coastal counties under its office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and through the state's pollution and stormwater control laws. Lacking a clear set of regulations, a developer could fill in a wetland with OCRM approval but later be sued by DHEC or an environmental group for a violation of the Pollution Control Act and be required to restore the wetland.

Back in the forest, Lareau and Everett ran into Jake Duncan near the edge of a spectacular island of cypress that rose amid a grass-bottomed stand of longleaf pines. A former wetlands expert for the Army Corps of Engineers, Duncan runs D&D Wetland and Endangered Species Training, a local environmental education company.

Duncan said a federally endangered flatwood salamander had been found about four years ago near the first pond Everett visited. He said too many small wetlands across the state that are critical to amphibians already have been allowed to disappear through the Army Corps and the state. Grooms' bill wasn't perfect, he said, because it didn't protect wetlands smaller than a half-acre, but it was a turn in the right direction.

"After permitting them all away, they've become rare things," he said.

But is it a wetland?retentiongraphic.gif

In March, former U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that the United States moved beyond "no net loss" to a "net gain" of wetlands. The gain of some 191,000 acres was accomplished from 1998 to 2004 because the Interior Department began including stormwater ponds at golf courses, shopping centers and subdivisions in its definition of "wetland."

In Mount Pleasant, Lareau stood at the edge of Towne Centre's algae-filled pond and pointed to a sheen of what appeared to be oil on top of the water. The pond was doing its job, she said, because it was keeping the oil out of area marshes. Pollutants gather in the ponds and can settle on the bottom.

"But there's nothing environmental about this," she said. "It doesn't clean the water, it doesn't treat it. It may allow sediment to settle out, but it's clearly not a wetland."

Lareau said Norton's designation was dangerous because if a developer wanted to fill in 1 acre of natural isolated wetlands, he could build a 2-acre stormwater pond system and claim an acre "net gain" of wetlands.

Nearby in Belle Hall Plantation, a pair of aerating fountains was losing the battle to algae in stormwater ponds in Hibben neighborhood. Alongside a snowy egret and a wooden duck house, a sheen of oil and a powdery white substance Everett said was not pollen floated on the water. Lareau said runoff that sinks to the bottom of these ponds will have to be dredged out, with property owners footing the bills for pollution cleanup.

At Ivy Hall, Everett found a murky, grass-lined pond she identified from an aerial photo taken before development as a former forested isolated wetland. She was stunned to find a rare carnivorous sundew plant growing low among the grass, but she was equally surprised by the lack of life in the water. "It's also insane that the state government hasn't stepped in to protect isolated wetlands because they're so ecologically valuable," Lareau said. "That pond — that's disgusting. There's just nothing there."

Wetlands sideshow

About the bill

Senate Bill 1260, sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms, would require state Department of Health and Environmental Control permits for impacts to wetlands of more than half an acre and mitigation of the impacts that occur. The bill has stalled in the Senate; it's been held up by its relatively late submission, time-consuming property tax reform legislation and a handful of legislators who Grooms said oppose almost all oversight of wetlands on private property.

Grooms said he has the two-thirds majority necessary to overcome objections and bring the bill to the floor. He will reintroduce the bill next year if it fails to make it to the floor this session.

Reach Chris Dixon at 745-5855 or cdixon@postandcourier.com.