Wetlands: An Overview of Issues

Publication Date: July 2007

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Environment



The 109th Congress, like earlier ones, continues to consider numerous policy topics that involve wetlands. Of interest are statements by the Bush Administration shortly after the 2004 election that restoration of 3 million wetland acres would be a priority. Wetland policies continue to attract congressional interest, and in recent months, that interest has become focused on the role that restored wetlands could play in protecting New Orleans, and coastal Louisiana more generally, from hurricanes.

In the 108th Congress and so far in the 109th Congress, no major wetlands legislation has been enacted. Earlier Congresses had reauthorized and amended many wetland programs and examined controversies such as applying federal regulations on private lands, wetland loss rates, implementation of farm bill provisions, and proposed changes to the federal permit program.

Congress also has been involved at the program level, responding to legal decisions and administrative actions. Examples include implementation of Corps of Engineers changes to the nationwide permit program; redefining key wetlands permit regulatory terms in revised rules issued in 2002; and a 2001 Supreme Court ruling (called the SWANCC case) that narrowed federal regulatory jurisdiction over certain isolated wetlands. Hearings on many of these topics were held, and some legislation was introduced. Legislation to reverse the SWANCC ruling has been introduced (H.R. 1356, the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act), as has a bill to narrow the government's regulatory jurisdiction (H.R. 2658, the Federal Wetlands Jurisdiction Act). A June 2006 Supreme Court ruling in two related cases could accelerate congressional attention to these issues.

Wetland protection efforts engender intense controversy over issues of science and policy. Controversial topics include the rate and pattern of loss, whether all wetlands should be protected in a single fashion, the ways in which federal laws currently protect them, and the fact that 75% of remaining U.S. wetlands are located on private lands.

One reason for these controversies is that wetlands occur in a wide variety of physical forms, and the numerous values they provide, such as wildlife habitat, also vary widely. In addition, the total wetland acreage in the lower 48 states is estimated to have declined from more than 220 million acres three centuries ago to 107.7 million acres in 2004. The long-standing national policy goal of no-net-loss has been reached, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, as the rate of loss has been more than offset by net gains through expanded restoration efforts authorized in multiple laws. Many protection advocates view these laws as inadequate or uncoordinated. Others, who advocate the rights of property owners and development interests, characterize them as too intrusive. Numerous state and local wetland programs add to the complexity of the protection effort.

This report replaces CRS Issue Brief IB97014, Wetland Issues, by Jeffrey A. Zinn and Claudia Copeland. It will be updated as warranted by developments.