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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1

Clean Water/Wetlands

In Kayaks and Courtrooms, Water Activists Dive In

by Jenny Coyle

"Death by a thousand cuts."

That's how the Club's Environmental Quality Program Director Kathyrn Hohmann describes the incremental destruction of wetlands. Filling a half-acre bog might not seem like a big deal, but filling a thousand of them can lead to floods, water pollution and the disappearance of wetland-dependent plants and animals.

"In 1998 our efforts to slow the devastation had mixed results," said Robin Mann, chair of the Club's Clean Water and Wetlands campaign.

Mann said it was encouraging when President Clinton announced his Clean Water Action Plan in February. Included in the plan was a goal to control polluted runoff from sources such as agricultural lands, urban streets and abused public lands. The president also proposed adding 100,000 acres of wetlands per year by the year 2005 - needed to offset the 117,000 acres currently destroyed each year.

"Our activists heralded the plan and its promise at Earth Day events," said Mann. "But we were soon having to remind the administration of its own commitments to wetlands protection when it released a damaging new Nationwide Permit proposal."

Mann is referring to Nationwide Permit 26, a rubber-stamp process that allows the filling of up to three acres of wetlands with little analysis. In 1997, after years of pressure from the environmental community, the Clinton administration agreed to phase out the permit, put an interim system in place, and eventually issue less-damaging replacement permits. But the proposal released in July was even more destructive than the existing permit. Broad opposition convinced the administration to back off partway from the proposal. The administration now plans to announce final permits on March 6.

The Club, in concert with the National Wildlife Federation, enjoyed a court victory involving another permit, NWP 29, which allows the filling of up to one-quarter acre wetlands for residential projects. Providing background for the case were Club members Deborah Messer, Carl Solberg and Jay Vincent. The federal court judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering alternatives when it first issued the permit in 1996. He ordered the Corps to conduct a more thorough environmental review.

Meanwhile, the Clean Water Action Plan programs were relatively successful in getting funded. "In the spring, Congress turned back efforts to add clean water funding to the budget," said Hohmann. "The Club had lobbied intensively to secure the funding, and when the votes failed, we launched a media blitz, using radio ads to chastise Senate and House opponents of the funding. A simultaneous grassroots effort prompted a flood of calls to congressional offices."

When it came time to appropriate agency funding late in the summer, lawmakers showed more solid support. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, received the entire increase of $145 million sought by the administration. The Department of Agriculture received only a minimal increase, however.

Beyond the capitols and courtrooms, activists who work to protect water and wetlands know a thing or two about catching the public's eye - and they did plenty of that in 1998. Last August, a flotilla of 90 canoes and kayaks hit Indiana's White River to focus attention on water-pollution problems. And in North Dakota, wetland preservation was the hot topic at last fall's "Rally on the Red" - another float trip that reminded Grand Forks residents how their town was devastated when the Red River spilled over its banks two winters ago. And then there was Big River Week, when 100 clean-water advocates gathered in Washington to lobby and release "Is Piglet Poisoning the Well?" - a colorful map detailing problems with pig and chicken factories.

They'll keep it up in 1999 - keeping a focus on pollution caused by animal factories, the preservation and restoration of wetlands, and a Clean Water Act program that limits the total number of pollutants dumped in any waterway.

Go on to the next article, "Invasion of the Corporate Swine
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