On April 2nd, as the Central Valley vernal pools started to unfurl their signature concentric rings of flowers and ephemeral waterways spring to life with snowmelt and rainfall, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) voted unanimously to adopt a final State Wetland Definition and Procedures for Discharges of Dredged or Fill Material to Waters of the State (“wetlands policy”). The State Board’s adoption of a statewide wetlands protection policy means that these fragile lands, along with many other unique types of wetlands, will enjoy stronger protection from destruction and conversion. These protections will benefit migratory birds, threatened red legged frogs, California tiger salamander, and many threatened and endangered fish, wildlife, and plants.
These protections come at a critical time. California has lost more than 90% of its historic wetlands from projects that filled in and converted wetlands to agricultural lands, housing, roads, and other development projects. The Central Valley originally had more than four million acres of wetlands that were, at one time, important stopover sites for millions of migratory birds. Today, there are approximately 205,000 acres of wetlands that remain in the Valley. The loss of coastal wetlands is even more alarming with 95% of the formerly-abundant lagoons and marshes along California’s 1100-mile coastline lost to destruction. These areas provide important functions, including flood control, improving water quality and water supply, carbon sequestration, recreation, and habitat for imperiled species.
California acknowledged the importance of its wetlands when Governor Pete Wilson signed an executive order in 1993 declaring California’s policy of no-net-loss of wetlands. Unfortunately, since that time, state and federal laws and regulations have proved to be inadequate. Every year, California loses more wetland acres than it replaces with restoration or mitigation. As these wetlands disappear, more and more wetland-dependent fish and wildlife slide closer to extinction and migratory birds crowd into shrinking habitat areas where proximity causes devastating outbreaks of disease and fails to provide the food necessary for these birds to make their long journeys between their summer and winter homes.
After the U.S. Supreme Court limited the definition of wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act in 2003, Senator Byron Sher introduced a bill (Senate Bill 1477) to direct the State Board to develop a state wetlands policy and rules for protection. Defenders of Wildlife was the lead sponsor of this bill along with California Audubon. In response to SB 1477, in 2004, the State Board agreed to develop a state wetlands policy. For 15 years, Defender has worked tirelessly to lead conservation groups through the controversial and complicated State Board process. The end goal of this lengthy campaign: to ensure that the State Board develop and adopt a strong definition of what constitutes a wetland and put into place strong protections against the destruction of those wetlands so that California could finally meet its “no net loss” goal.
After the election of President Trump, the need for the State Board to finalize and adopt this policy became more important than ever. Under President Trump’s new proposed rule regarding the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act, waterways critical for California’s water quality and wildlife (e.g., ephemeral headwater streams, desert playas, coastal mudflats, and vernal pools) would be stripped of federal protections.
California’s action this month is important not only because it will mean that wetlands will be protected for the future regardless of efforts to weaken federal protections, but it also sets an example for other states to follow by approving their own wetlands protections.