The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted a gathering of media Thursday to highlight a national effort to assess the health of the nation’s wetlands. The agency also provided information on proposed changes to how the government protects wetlands. Naturally, those in agriculture who have been aware of this forthcoming survey of wetlands have been concerned about the eventual impact on farmers and ranchers.   

The information session on Thursday was held at the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Elk Grove, Calif., where scientists were sampling nearby wetlands in support of the National Wetlands Condition Assessment (NWCA).

Per the EPA’s explanation, the NWCA is a collaboration between EPA and its state, tribal, and federal partners representing the first-ever national field survey on the health of the nation’s wetlands. More than 1,000 sites across the country—including 43 in California—are being surveyed to assess indicators of wetland health, including water quality and flow, vegetation and soils. California NCWA sampling during the next two months will be focused on wetlands in the following counties: San Mateo, San Diego, Orange, Solano, Contra Costa, Ventura, Marin, Monterey, Humboldt, Sacramento, Inyo, Merced, and Mendocino. Sampling will be proceeding in other states, too, in order to complete the huge number of surveys scheduled.  

There has been recent new draft guidance on federal wetlands protection made available for public comment. “The draft guidance, developed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, aims to clarify which waters are subject to protection under the Clean Water Act, and is open to public input until July 1st. Formal regulations clarifying when the CWA applies may follow the guidance, a process which would again involve public input,” the EPA announced.

“Wetlands filter pollution, and protect communities from flooding while providing habitat for fish, fowl and flora,” said Alexis Strauss, EPA’s water division director for the Pacific Southwest. “The draft Clean Water Act guidance will reaffirm our intent to protect these vital and vanishing resources to the fullest extent of the law, while providing greater clarity to the regulated public.”

“Between 80 and 95 percent of California’s original wetlands and stream-side (‘riparian’) habitats have been destroyed or modified. For nearly 40 years, the Clean Water Act has been a cornerstone of EPA’s effort to ensure that Americans have clean and healthy waters. The draft guidance, part of the Obama administration's national clean water framework, implements recent Supreme Court decisions addressing what types of waters could be subject to traditional CWA protections. The framework outlines a series of actions across federal agencies to ensure the integrity of the waters Americans rely on every day for drinking, swimming and fishing, and that support farming, recreation, tourism and economic growth,” the EPA contends.  

The National Wetland Condition Assessment (NWCA) survey was designed by EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The EPA explained that it will use a probability-based model to estimate the health of aquatic resources in order to try for consistency nation-wide to ensure that the results can be compared across the country.

“Used along with similar surveys on the nation’s coastal waters, wadeable streams, rivers, and lakes, the NWCA results will help us to better protect, maintain, and restore our nation’s water quality and vanishing aquatic habitat,” the EPA announcement concluded.

To read the draft “Waters of the United States” guidance and for information on how to submit a comment click here.

To learn more about the National Wetlands Conditions Assessment click here.