by Alicia Claire Lloyd, Clean Water Policy Coordinator
Missourians have lost up to a startling 87 percent of our state’s historic wetlands—one of the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world. Wetlands are vibrant and fascinating ecological communities with unique soils that support vegetation adapted to wet conditions. In Missouri, wetland, such as swamps, marshes, and wet meadows serve critical natural functions for humans and wildlife alike. These waters were drained and filled en masse in the 1800s and early 1900s. Their conversion has continued incrementally over more recent decades with the expansion of suburban sprawl from city centers, the mass construction of levee and navigation systems severing rivers from their floodplains, and the intensification of industrial agricultural production.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources reports suggest about half of Missouri’s original 4.8 million acres of wetlands were located in the now heavily agricultural southeast Bootheel region and 3.6 million acres–or 87 percent of all destroyed wetlands–were lost to agricultural drainage. As the private gains from development and agribusiness accrue unchallenged and the importance of wetland and floodplain ecosystems is ignored, the public loses the value of these critical natural resources.
Government policy seeks to shape behavior, often by attaching carrots or sticks to specific choices. Cigarette taxes are meant to discourage smoking. We pay tickets as penalty for violating parking rules. Similarly, environmental policy uses permits and fines to discourage polluters or offers rewards for stewardship. Policies managing wetlands in Missouri are based primarily on federal regulation requiring developers to first apply for a permit to develop or convert wetland acreage to another land use, depriving others of their communal benefits. Permittees then incur some cost to compensate the public for permitted damages to wetland resources by mitigating the damages elsewhere.
Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act prohibits unpermitted “discharge of fill material” into waters of the United States on public or private lands. The US Army Corps of Engineers implements the 404 program and requires developers to mitigate permitted impacts to wetland and stream resources by purchasing credits from an approved wetland mitigation bank or restoring wetlands elsewhere themselves. The goal of the 404 program was to achieve “no net loss” of the state’s remaining wetland resource base by 1995. MCE and other organizations in the Mississippi River Collaborative work to watchdog this process and to advocate for quality mitigation activities with real environmental benefits.… Read the rest