shows need for state wetlands policy
S.C. Statehouse Report
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.