Troubling bills are afoot in the Virginia General Assembly that would remove the state’s protection of large tracts of nontidal wetlands and leave the only safeguards in the hands of the federal government.
Proponents of Senate Bill 885 and House Bill 1623 contend that nontidal wetlands don’t need both state and federal protection, and that eliminating Virginia’s permitting role for large-impact projects will reduce burdensome regulation and paperwork for development businesses. Perhaps not coincidentally, the sponsors of the bills represent districts in Southeast Virginia, a region dense with both wetlands and developers.
In the late 1990s, land developers had declared open season on Virginia’s nontidal wetlands. A series of federal court decisions at the time suddenly left in limbo the enforceability of earlier federal protections of nontidal wetlands. That opened a window of opportunity for developers to launch an unprecedented campaign to ditch and drain wetlands to build homes, shopping centers, and parking lots upon them.
Virginia was particularly vulnerable because, unlike other Bay states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Old Dominion had no nontidal wetland protection laws of its own to backstop the federal safeguards. As a result, within just 12 months of the court rulings, thousands of nontidal wetland acres in Virginia were destroyed by the builders’ backhoes and bulldozers. Many of the lost wetlands were in Southeast Virginia.
As the name denotes, nontidal wetlands are not those large, flat, saltwater marshes of the Tidewater area that are so frequently identified with the Chesapeake Bay. Nontidal wetlands are moist, spongy, freshwater areas surrounding the thousands of small springs, creeks, and streams that are the Bay’s headwaters. Because of their geography and hydrology, some nontidal wetlands aren’t even wet at some times of the year. They remain wetlands nonetheless, however, and their distinctive soils, underground hydrology, and plants provide critical filtration, wildlife habitat, and flood and erosion control for the Bay’s natal streams. Without these vital natural resources, the Bay’s water quality would be compromised at its very source.
Fortunately, CBF and other conservation groups battled hard a decade ago to ensure the 2000 General Assembly approved Virginia’s first-ever nontidal wetland protection law. The successful legislation, championed by then-Delegate L. Preston Bryant Jr. of Lynchburg and Senator Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington and then-Senator John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg, created a comprehensive state permitting program to minimize wetland losses and mitigate for unavoidable impacts. At the time, CBF called the new law “among the most significant environmental measures in a decade.”
Virginia’s law resulted in today’s successful state permitting program that allows for “one-stop shopping” for smaller nontidal wetland impacts (about 85 percent of permit applications) and calls for dual permitting by the state and the federal government for large-scale projects that, by their nature, require more careful, specialized review.
State officials running the program told legislators this week that Virginia’s program is operating at peak efficiency and hasn’t received a complaint in years. That’s apparently not good enough for developers and their legislative patrons in Southeast Virginia. Their bills would strip Virginia of its authority to manage the largest – and therefore most harmful – wetland impacts and leave that responsibility to the federal government.
Not only does that risky approach fly in the face of Virginia’s recent history of wetland protection, but it comes at a time when the state’s highest officials have acknowledged the pivotal role wetlands must play in the success of the state’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just two months ago.
It is also curious that state lawmakers, who often advocate that Virginia be allowed to govern its affairs without federal interference, should propose ceding authority to the feds over vital state natural resources.
What do you think the best approach to wetland protection should be? If you agree with CBF that Virginia must ensure its nontidal wetlands are protected by Virginia, tell your General Assembly legislators to oppose SB 885/HB1623. As these bills could come up for discussion and votes any day now, contact your legislator today.
Wetlands have been called the “kidneys” of the Bay because of their natural pollution-filtering functions. More than half of the Bay’s commercially important fish and crab species spend at least part of their lifetimes in wetlands. Should Virginia really consider reducing protections for them?
Chesapeake Bay Foundation