The Wotus Rule controversy


Rain-filled depressions, also called small isolated wetlands, and perennial streams, streams that may have no surface flow during extreme droughts, are at the center of a current controversy. On the one side are those who contend they have little or no value, and on the other side are biologists, ecologists, and many hydrologists who have a differing opinion. In my opinion, the latter’s arguments are more reasonable than the formers’.
When heavy rainfall occurs, some of the water flows across the surface and into creeks and rivers, whereas some remains on the surface, seeping downward and eventually helping to replenish groundwater resources. The resulting small isolated wetlands that often hold water for a while are beneficial in this respect, and also as indispensable breeding sites for a number of amphibians. In my last column I mentioned the chorus frogs that breed in the rain-filled depressions. So, in the long run, measures that retain as much of the rain on the surface as is practicable makes good sense, and that dredging and filling of wetlands should be avoided if possible.
The importance of protecting perennial streams from pollution and excessive sedimentation should be obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the environment. When perennial streams are degraded with chemicals or sediments, the pollutants do not stay in one place. They ultimately wind up in permanent streams, ponds, and lakes. Two perennial streams flow across my property and are two of the headwaters of Choctafaula Creek. They unite before flowing onto my neighbor’s property, where his cattle rely on the water for drinking.
All of which brings us to the controversy over the so-called WOTUS Rule. For years, an argument has raged about which bodies of water should be designated “Waters of the United States,” and which should be denied the designation and left unprotected under provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. A final regulation published by EPA and the Corps of Engineers was released recently. The rule is complex but essentially provides protection of perennial streams and other water bodies that lie within the 100-year floodplain of the “ordinary high water mark,” of any stream, regardless of how often it flows, but not more than 1,500 feet of the high water mark. Such a stipulation would include many small isolated wetlands, but would exclude many in upland areas.
Other “jurisdictional waters” would include navigable waters, interstate waters, tributaries, and adjacent waters. Farming organizations object to the WOTUS Rule, contending that “ mud puddles and ditches” would be protected. EPA and the Corps deny that mud puddles and ordinary ditches would be protected. The American Farm Bureau Federation contends that many of the rule’s provisions are vague. It mentions that farm ponds are excluded from jurisdiction, but only if they are constructed on dry land.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in North Dakota has granted a preliminary injunction against enforcing the WOTUS Rule, saying it is too expansive, and the U.S. House has voted to overturn the Rule. Every one of our Representatives voted to overturn, including the Democrat. Expectations are that the Senate will follow suit, and that Pres. Obama will veto the legislation.
I am inclined to agree with the farmers’ groups that the rules are confusing, and that clarification is needed. I hope, however, that regulations to protect perennial streams and many small isolated wetlands will remain intact.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University.


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