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The Ungreening of America: Down Upon the Suwannee River

It was only a small environmental rule change by Bush's EPA. But it's threatening Florida's Suwannee River -- and the nation's wetlands.

The Clean Water Act inconveniences coal miners as well as phosphate miners. For example, a four-year-old court interpretation of the law forbids miners' traditional practice of pushing busted-up mountains into valleys, thereby burying headwater streams. It's cheaper to take the mountain from the coal, rather than vice versa, so during the last decade "mountaintop removal," as the public calls it -- or "mountain mining," as the industry prefers -- has become de rigueur in the coal seams of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. In addition to mountains and some of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, the practice has cost America a lot of streams. An EPA study reports 724 miles of stream obliterated by mountaintop mining and an additional 476 miles that were "directly impacted." Mining residue in the form of broken mountains and forests is, of course, waste; but the Corps can't give permits to dump waste into wetlands and streams. Accordingly, the coal industry started calling the rubble "fill" and got fill-dumping permits from the cooperative Corps.

But then on October 20, 1999, U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden ruled that this was unlawful. "When valley fills are permitted in intermittent and perennial streams, they destroy those stream segments," he wrote in his 49-page order. "The normal flow and gradient of the stream is now buried under millions of cubic yards of excess spoil waste material, an extremely adverse effect. If there are fish, they cannot migrate. If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated. No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration.... Under a valley fill the water quantity of the stream becomes zero. Because there is no stream, there is no water quality."

The solution was immediately clear to the coal industry and the Bush administration. The name change had to become official. So on May 3, 2002, the administration, the Corps, and the EPA finalized a rule that redefined mining waste as fill. Five days later Judge Haden struck it down. "Only Congress can rewrite the Clean Water Act," he wrote. But, if the Bush administration's wetlands rule-making goes through, the headwater streams themselves will be redefined -- that is, they won't count as streams under the Clean Water Act -- and mining companies can bury them without federal permits.

The notion that isolated wetlands and intermittent and underground streams shouldn't count because they're small is like saying that tree branches shouldn't count because they're small. Cut a few and you may not see any ill effect on the tree; cut a lot, and it dies. If you add up all the "isolated waters" that the Bush administration has stripped of federal protection, it comes to 20 percent of the 105.5 million acres of wetlands that remain in the contiguous states. We started out with 220 million.

Another problem is that these wetlands and streams proceed by gravity into rivers and lakes. Under the Bush administration's new guidelines, a factory pig farm, say, can pipe manure into the source of an otherwise protected municipal water supply. It makes as much sense as pouring yourself a glass of bottled springwater, then dropping in ice chunks pried from the inside of your car's fenders.

It's not just environmentalists who are irate. Pollution permits issued by the EPA are based on pollution loads, so when those loads increase because wetlands and streams are being legally fouled, industries and municipalities are required to spend more on effluent treatment. And, in the process, the river gets no cleaner. Many of the states are angry as well. Among the 133,000 mostly negative letters the EPA received about the guidance and proposed rule-making was the following from John Cooper, who heads the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks: "The calendar has effectively been rolled back 30 years for some of South Dakota's and the nation's most important wetland resources."

As Cooper went on to note, isolated waters have functions that are different and no less important than larger ones. For example, when floods are raging in the main channel, juvenile fish find refuge in small feeder streams where the current is gentle because they are intermittent. The streams the Corps and EPA write off tend to be fed by groundwater, which remains at more or less the same temperature year-round; so they provide fish with refuge from ice in winter and from warm, deoxygenated water in summer. Amphibians breed in small wetlands because they are isolated from fish, which otherwise would devour them. Only 20 years ago the Animal Welfare Institute was able to report that "amphibians have fared better than other vertebrates." Today few classes of vertebrates are in more desperate trouble. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists 157 species and four subspecies of amphibians as "vulnerable," "endangered," or "critically endangered."

Ben Stout, director of environmental studies at Wheeling (West Virginia) Jesuit University, has found that the headwater streams that mountaintop removers and the Bush administration want to bury, and which both call "dry washes," have greater biodiversity than the waters they feed. At 175 sampling sites, he and his team found all eight orders of aquatic insects they were looking for -- in all, 80 groups, including perennial species. "The biological community begins in watersheds as small as six acres," he told me. "The majority of insects we found are leaf shredders; when they shred leaves the particles feed the whole downstream community. And emerging insects export this energy back to the forest in a form that's available to salamanders, frogs, fish, and birds. An intermittent stream is the link between a forest and a river."

In issuing its wetlands guidance document, the Bush administration rejected warnings from the most knowledgeable wetlands authorities in the nation, including the professional managers and biologists of such organizations as the Wildlife Society, American Fisheries Society, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and Ducks Unlimited, who patiently explained why and how isolated waters are "an integral part of our nation's watersheds and thus affect the health of all waters of the United States," and 43 senior scientists from organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences who painstakingly detailed "the ecological goods and services" provided by isolated wetlands and intermittent and underground streams.

THESE GOODS AND SERVICES are particularly evident in the woods around the Suwannee's Little Shoals. Of all the places on earth I would look for whitewater, Florida is close to the last; so after I'd seen these rapids from the air, I insisted that Lindskold and Sedmera guide me to them by wheel and foot. Everyone but Avis appreciated the 2.2-mile ride over the rough, muddy dirt road. Deer froze and fled noiselessly over and through palmettos, their tails bobbing like snowy owls long after the forest had swallowed the rest of their bodies. Sand washes, dry for only a few days, were strewn with fox scat and wild turkey tracks. Twice we heard the demented laughter of pileated woodpeckers.

For the entire distance the car was completely in the Suwannee River. The engine ran smoothly, however, because the floodplain was dry -- rivers breathe like people and we were catching this one on an exhale. A sign we'd seen as we turned off the tarred road had informed us that in 1998 the surface of the river at this point had been exactly level with the roof of the car. When the dirt road ran out, we walked through and around forested wetlands (real ones), picking and eating blueberries as we went.

These wetlands didn't look anything like the "restored" versions we'd seen earlier. They were dark, cool, and richly scented with damp earth and forest duff. A few were already dry, at least on the surface, but most held standing water. Tadpoles splashed at our feet, and all around us redbellied woodpeckers croaked. When we found pond cypress "knees," we looked for the cypress, much of which had been cut out. But other species thrived. In and around the wetlands we encountered old, lofty specimens of river birch, red maple, sweet gum, wax myrtle, persimmon, ash, and, on higher ground, loblolly pine. The diversity of wildlife was a function of the diversity of vegetation.

The area over which we had been riding and walking had been subdivided and offered for house lots. Then the Suwannee River Water Management District bought it to protect the public from floods and the river from pollution. Canoeing and kayaking are popular everywhere on the river, especially at Little Shoals. Still, most visitors -- in fact, most Americans -- have yet to make the connection between rivers and wetlands.

The environmental community, which made the connection long ago, preaches about the value of wetlands; but it spends enormous resources attacking businesses that destroy wetlands without attacking the government agencies that permit and encourage the destruction. So savagely has PCS been beaten up by environmentalists that it gets jumpy when approached by reporters, especially reporters from publications like Mother Jones. Some of the pummeling was well deserved and has elicited improved behavior. But, these days, more and more of it is unfair. If all your neighbors were strip miners, you wouldn't have a better one than PCS. It really does make an effort. While it pollutes the Suwannee, it generally dumps no more than 20 percent of the limit allowed on its EPA discharge permit. Pollution is way down because the company has voluntarily reduced its use of groundwater by conserving and recycling. PCS has donated land and money to the town of White Springs for a modern sewage-treatment plant, thereby removing one of the last pollution point sources to the upper Suwannee.

Chastising industry for legally destroying wetlands is like chastising your cat for killing rodents and coughing them up under the dinner table. You can do it, but it won't get you anywhere because that's the nature of the beast. The nature of government, on the other hand, is different. Chastising the executive branch for emasculating the Clean Water Act might just get you some results -- especially if you do it with letters to newspapers, on the Internet, and, ultimately, with your vote.

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