State Director, Environment New Jersey
State Director, Environment New Jersey
New Report Documents Critical Role Wetlands Play as ‘Shelter From the Storm’
Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center
Trenton – Developers can no longer pave over wetlands and oil companies can no longer dump into streams unheeded, thanks to the Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule that takes effect tomorrow.
The action will protect the streams that feed the Delaware River and the Shore, as well as drinking water sources for 1 in 3 Americans and more than half of New Jersey residents.
“From the Delaware to the D & R Canal, the waters that provide our drinking water can only be clean if the streams that flow into it are protected,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Our wetlands are nature’s first line of defense against storms and flooding. Our streams are the ultimate source for our drinking water. They need to be fully protected by the Clean Water Act. The EPA got this one right – this is a big win for clean water.”
More than 4,000 miles of New Jersey’s streams, including those feeding the Delaware and the Jersey Shore, will gain federal protections under the final EPA rule. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters and wetlands that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years.
“Every one of the 216 waterways that feed the Delaware River Basin in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, first begins as a series of many tiny creeks and streams or wetlands that bubble-up out of the ground or flow down a mountain side. But it is precisely those small waterways, vernal pools and wetlands that are not adequately protected and, in fact, are often filled, paved-over and piped underground for one form of development or another. EPA’s Clean Water Rule will help better protect these critically important waterways for the humans and wildlife that depend on them,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.
Enough wetlands remain in the flood-prone areas of Gloucester County alone in South Jersey to hold 58 times the amount produced by an average rainstorm in Camden and would cover Camden in nearly 5 feet of water, according to a new report by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center.
The analysis, Shelter from the Storm: How Wetlands Protect Our Communities from Flooding, says the area’s wetlands are at risk from pollution and development, however, and so is the region’s natural shield against flood damage.
Floods are the most common natural disaster in the United States, causing an average of $8.2 billion in damage each year for the past 30 years. As global warming continues, scientists predict that the damage caused by floods will only increase. Warmer air is able to hold more water vapor, leading to higher levels of precipitation during rain and snowstorms. At the start of this decade, storms were already producing 78 percent more precipitation in the Northeast than they did in the 1950s.
The analysis shows New Jersey boasts approximately 687,000 acres of freshwater wetlands statewide. In the counties for which flood hazard data are available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 125,000 acres of the state’s freshwater wetlands are in 100-year-flood zones. In South Jersey in Gloucester County, there are more than 32,000 acres of freshwater wetlands, of which more than 14,000 acres are located in 100-year-flood zones. Together, these wetlands are capable of holding more than 10.6 billion gallons of water in Gloucester County alone. Statewide, wetlands are capable of holding more than 224 billion gallons of water. As a reference, an acre of wetland one foot deep can hold more than 330,000 gallons of water.
Addressing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, the Clean Water Rule restores protections to streams that feed drinking water supplies for 117 million Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, vital for flood control and filtering pollutants, are also again shielded under federal law.
The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands including close to half of the streams in New Jersey in a perilous legal limbo. This allowed polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them in many cases without any federal oversight. In a four-year period following the decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1,500 investigations against polluters, according to one analysis by The New York Times.
The Clean Water Rule, adopted this May 28 following a decade-long push by Environment New Jersey and others, ensures that such pollution cases can be prosecuted. On the front end, federal officials can now protect these waters with enforceable limits on pollution.
Environment New Jersey, Clean Water Action, Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network in conjunction with local farmers and businesses held a town hall meeting on the night the EPA Clean Water Rule was announced this spring in Pennington and released a video – produced by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network – outlining public support for the rule.
This loophole in the nation’s Clean Water Act leaves the state’s smaller streams and 20 million acres of wetlands across the country without guaranteed protection under the law. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finalize the Clean Water Rule tomorrow.
The joint rule by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is backed by robust scientific review and has gained broad support across a wide range of constituencies. More than 1,000 mayors, brewers, kayakers, anglers, small businesses, and farmers have joined a throng of citizens to submit more than 800,000 comments and register support for the rule.
A May Hart Research Associates poll showed that 80 percent of American voters surveyed across party lines favored the Clean Water Rule. Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections to places like the Delaware River and the Jersey Shore, oil and gas companies, developers, and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them. The U.S. House and key Senate committees have passed multiple bills to block or severely weaken the rule.
Major water polluters, from coal company Murray Energy, to road-builders and developers, to manufacturers have also filed suit against the rule. But the Obama administration and clean water advocates are confident the Clean Water Rule will survive challenges in both Congress and the courts.
“The Clean Water Rule is on solid ground, legally, scientifically, and politically,” said O’Malley. “Tomorrow marks a new era for the health of our families and our waterways. Wetlands give us shelter from the storm, so this EPA protection will shelter wetlands from development and pollution. We applaud Sen. Booker and Sen. Menendez for standing up to polluters and championing protections for all our streams and wetlands.
Environment New Jersey is the statewide, citizen-funded advocacy organizations working for a cleaner, greener, healthier future. www.EnvironmentNewJersey.org
Table 1: Wetland Acreage in 100-Year-Flood Zones in New Jersey and Gloucester County Freshwater Wetlands (Acres)
Freshwater Wetlands in 100-Year-Flood Zones (14 of 21 Counties Included) (Acres)
Potential for Floodwater Absorption (All Freshwater Wetlands) (Millions of Gallons)