Wet and wild: Birds, deer enjoy Northern California fields after abundant rain
California’s wetland resources provide an abundance of human and environmental benefits: flood protection, filtration of water pollutants, surface and groundwater supplies, wildlife habitat, open space, public recreational opportunities and more.
Sadly, historical filling and development projects have reduced our wetlands to a mere 10 percent of their original extent. The loss of coastal wetlands is even more alarming: 95 percent of the formerly-abundant lagoons and marshes along California’s coastline have been destroyed.
In 1972, Congress enacted the Clean Water Act, which included a program designed to preserve the nation’s dwindling wetlands. This federal program has never been wholly successful in achieving that goal. In recent decades, litigation over the extent of federal authority to protect wetlands, federal regulators’ failure to delineate clearly that authority and, now, the Trump administration’s overt plans to open wetland areas to development have combined to threaten America’s few remaining wetlands.
California has the ability to fill this alarming regulatory gap, at least here in the Golden State. California’s State Water Resources Control Board possesses independent power to protect and preserve the state’s remaining wetlands. Indeed, it has broader authority to do so than do federal regulators. Years ago, Gov. Pete Wilson announced a “no net loss” goal for California wetlands, but the board is only now considering a specific policy to do just that.
In January, the board released a final draft of its proposed state wetlands policy. Earlier this month, it held a well-attended public workshop to receive public testimony. Real estate interests and land speculators have expressed their opposition to that proposal on three main grounds. They say:
▪ The board plan is rushed and premature.
▪ The draft policy unduly elevates environmental concerns over economic considerations.
▪ Adoption of the plan would undermine California’s efforts to address its current housing crisis.
Each of these criticisms is utterly without merit.
First, industry’s claim that the water board is rushing to judgment is patently false. In fact, the board has been debating its wetlands policy for nearly a decade in a transparent and publicly-inclusive process that has involved no less than a dozen opportunities for public engagement and comment.
Second, the draft policy is measured and moderate. That’s underscored by the fact that 11 of California’s most respected environmental organizations have filed formal comments with the board complaining that the draft wetlands policy is too lax and urging the board to consider strengthening it. We agree that the board’s draft wetlands policy is, if anything, too weak rather than too stringent. We certainly do not believe that this policy should be weakened any further.
Finally, industry’s claim that adoption of the proposed wetlands policy will undermine achievement of the state’s affordable housing goals is its most cynical and specious. That’s because there are literally hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped or underdeveloped properties currently available for building new housing across California.
These properties are generally located in existing communities close to jobs, shopping, schools and transit, thus allowing Californians to substantially reduce their commutes and costs, and consequently shrink their cost of living.
Focusing new housing in existing communities also accomplishes multiple other important public policy objectives, such as reducing state greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging investment in existing communities and increasing the tax base to pay for existing infrastructure maintenance.
Conversely, building in remote, currently undeveloped regions of the state is the only type of housing project that endangers California wetlands. It also contradicts the explicit state policy of encouraging infill development. It’s precisely the type of housing that polls indicate most Californians no longer want.
The water board’s proposed wetlands policy is measured, reasonable, critically needed and long overdue. The board should adopt it without further delay.