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2002-2004, South Carolina Statehouse Report. Published weekly during the S.C. legislative session. South Carolina Statehouse Report is a media project of The Brack Group, Charleston, S.C.

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Drought shows need for state wetlands policy
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

AUG. 18, 2002 - - The state's extended five-year drought might be good for thwarting West Nile virus in South Carolina, but it's not good for the state's wetlands.

Visible wetlands - lakes and ponds - are drying up because there's little rain to recharge them. Steams and rivers have greatly diminished flows.

But while you can see the drought's effects on these areas, there are seemingly invisible wet places that may suffer more over the long-term without proper management.

South Carolina has thousands of isolated wetland areas that range from as small as a half of an acre to hundreds of acres. They're often not directly connected to ground-level streams or lakes. Instead, they're depressions like Carolina Bays or bogs that function as seasonal wet areas with fluctuating water tables.

Today, these seasonal areas are dry. Just to look at them, you probably wouldn't now notice anything much different from a scrub pine forest or field.

But isolated wetlands are vitally important. Not only do they serve as important habitats for reptile and amphibian production, they're necessary water storage areas for non-drought times. They also serve as filters to clean water as it seeps to replenish groundwater supplies.

The easiest way to think about this is to imagine a household sponge. When you go to the store and buy a sponge, it's dry. If you submerge it in water and put it on the counter, it looks virtually the same, but it's wet.

These isolated wetlands are nature's sponges, says Savannah River Ecology Lab biologist Charlie Davis. Many look dry today, but when a hurricane or El Nino changes our state's weather patterns, these areas will fill and absorb water so other areas won't flood.

The reason it's important now to think about isolated wetlands is they're threatened and being developed. In January 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that isolated wetlands no longer were protected by the Clean Water Act. In short, the court's ruling curbed federal regulatory jurisdiction over isolated areas, which makes it easier for them to be developed.

In South Carolina, the court's decision leaves isolated wetlands in 38 counties without protection, according to Deputy DHEC Director Chris Brooks. Along the eight coastal counties, his Office of Coastal Resource Management has tools in place to balance development of isolated wetlands. But that regulatory authority has been questioned in a Beaufort County lawsuit that's made its way to the state Supreme Court.

Regulators say it may be time for S.C. lawmakers to consider adopting a state wetlands policy that seeks to avoid development of isolated wetlands and mitigate in areas that will be developed.

If these isolated wetlands that now look dry are developed, hubs of wildlife habitat reproduction areas will be lost. Filled, paved-over areas also will be prone to flooding when the state cycles into a wet stretch. That could mean a decrease in water quality because floodwater flowing into streams picks up contaminants. In turn, municipal water treatment facilities would have to spend more to clean the water so you can drink it.

"These wetland areas serve as natural filters to clean water," Brooks said. If the wetlands are filled and can't recharge aquifers, groundwater won't serve a source to keep streams and rivers flowing in times of drought, he said.

Next year, state lawmakers should take a serious look at implementing a state wetlands policy that allows the state to be responsible regulators of isolated wet areas. The policy should take into account development needs, but allow regulators to manage wetlands to ensure nature's sponges will be able to perform their intended functions.

-- 30 --

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10/27: SC GOP to keep control of House
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10/6: Creating sunshine to dampen negative ads
9/29: SC Set to be world leader in news research
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9/15: Gov's race about barbs, ads, not people
9/8: Shorfall may cause look at prison alternatives
9/2: Revitalize your patriotism by participating
8/25: S.C.'s fiscal situation could be a lot worse
8/18: State wetlands policy needed
8/11: The bully vs. the whiner
8/4: Noah's Ark approach to tax reform
7/28: Two-party system could be political outcome
7/21: State budget woes loom for 2 more years
7/14: Agencies can do better job on Internet
7/5: Thank a guardsman today for service
6/28: Hodges-Sanford race will be wild ride
6/21: Sanford-Peeler race's impact on GOP
6/14: Ethics reform needed now

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