II. A Divisive Debate
III. The Interagency Working Group on Federal Wetlands Policy
IV. Five Principles for Federal Wetlands Policy
V. A Comprehensive Package of Reforms
A. Addressing Landowner Concerns
B. Advance Planning and Watershed Management
E. Geographic Jurisdiction
F. Mitigation and Mitigation Banking
H. Roles of Federal Agencies
I. Roles of State, Tribal, and Local Government
J. Scope of Regulated Activities
K. State of Alaska
VII. Postscript: Lessons From the Flood
The Clinton Administration is proposing a comprehensive package of improvements to the Federal wetlands program that reflects a new broad-based consensus among Federal agencies. For years, many have argued that the Federal government badly needed to improve its wetlands program to make it fairer and more effective. But for too long, contradictory policies from feuding Federal agencies have blocked progress, creating uncertainty and confusion. This wetlands package reflects a sharp break through the past gridlock caused by warring Federal agencies and contains a balanced, common sense, workable set of improvements that will make the program simpler, fairer, better coordinated with state and local efforts and more effective at protecting wetlands.
The Nation's wetlands perform many functions that are important to society, such as improving water quality, recharging groundwater, providing natural flood control, and supporting a wide variety of fish, wildlife and plants. The economic importance of wetlands to commercial fisheries and recreational uses is also enormous. The Nation has lost nearly half of the wetland acreage that existed in the lower 48 States prior to European settlement. The Nation's wetlands continue to be lost at a rate of hundreds of thousands of acres per year due to both human activity and natural processes. This continued loss occurs at great cost to society.
Notwithstanding the importance of wetland resources, efforts to protect wetlands have caused considerable controversy. It is estimated that 75 percent of the Nation's wetlands in the lower 48 States are located on private property. It is, therefore, imperative to recognize and consider fully the impacts of wetlands protection policies on individuals who own wetland property. Statutory, regulatory, and policy objectives should be accomplished in a manner that avoids unnecessary impacts upon such landowners.
Given the environmental and economic significance of wetlands, the alarming rate of wetlands loss, and concerns for private landowners, the Interagency Working Group on Federal Wetlands Policy began developing a comprehensive package of initiatives in June. The policy positions contained in this paper strongly support the effective protection and restoration of the Nation's wetlands, while advocating much-needed reforms to increase the fairness and flexibility of Federal regulatory programs.
Federal programs to protect the Nation's wetlands have been the focus of considerable controversy in recent years. Much of the attention focused upon the 1989 Interagency Wetlands Delineation Manual (1989 Manual). The 1989 Manual was prepared jointly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service (SCS). It was developed in response to criticism that Federal agencies were not using a single set of common procedures to "delineate" -- or identify -- wetlands under the jurisdiction of programs administered by these agencies.
But rather than alleviating concerns about inconsistency, the 1989 Manual only further fueled the controversy. Critics claimed that the 1989 Manual represented a major expansion of regulatory jurisdiction without opportunity for public participation. In response, the Bush Administration embarked upon a closed-door effort to revise the 1989 Manual. This process resulted in the technically flawed 1991 Manual that would have dramatically and indefensibly reduced the amount of wetlands subject to protection. The proposed 1991 Manual generated even further controversy and resulted in even greater polarization of the debate on Federal wetlands policy. In addition to assailing the 1989 Manual, critics of Federal wetlands regulatory programs effectively characterized those programs as unfair, inflexible, inconsistent, and confusing. Supporters of wetlands protection responded -- with equal effectiveness -- by emphasizing the environmental and economic benefits associated with protecting the Nation's wetlands.
As both sides voiced their strongly held opinions, the debate over Federal wetlands policy became increasingly divisive. The opposition that developed to both the 1989 and 1991 Manuals demonstrated the policy deadlock that had developed. Wetlands policy has become one of the most controversial environmental issues facing the Federal government, just as Congress embarks upon the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act.
The Administration convened the Interagency Working Group on Federal Wetlands Policy in early June with the goal of developing a package of Clinton Administration initiatives to break the deadlock over Federal wetlands policy. The group has been chaired by the White House Office on Environmental Policy and has included the participation of the EPA, the Army (the Corps of Engineers), the Office of Management and Budget, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, Justice, and Transportation.
The working group sought the views of a broad range of stakeholders representing all perspectives in the wetlands debate. For example, the working group has received presentations that have included: a bipartisan group of eight members of the U.S. Congress; representatives of State and local government; environmentalists; the development community; agricultural interests; scientists and others.
After listening to this broad range of interests, the working group began its policy deliberations by establishing the following five principles that serve as the framework for the Administration's comprehensive package of wetlands reform initiatives.
1) The Clinton Administration supports the interim goal of no overall net loss of the Nation's remaining wetlands, and the long-term goal of increasing the quality and quantity of the Nation's wetlands resource base;
2) Regulatory programs must be efficient, fair, flexible, and predictable, and must be administered in a manner that avoids unnecessary impacts upon private property and the regulated public, and minimizes those effects that cannot be avoided, while providing effective protection for wetlands. Duplication among regulatory agencies must be avoided and the public must have a clear understanding of regulatory requirements and various agency roles;
3) Non-regulatory programs, such as advance planning; wetlands restoration, inventory, and research; and public/private cooperative efforts must be encouraged to reduce the Federal government's reliance upon regulatory programs as the primary means to protect wetlands resources and to accomplish long-term wetlands gains;
4) The Federal government should expand partnerships with State, Tribal, and local governments, the private sector and individual citizens and approach wetlands protection and restoration in an ecosystem/watershed context; and
5) Federal wetlands policy should be based upon the best scientific information available.
Building upon these principles, the working group has developed a comprehensive package of initiatives that will significantly reform Federal wetlands policy, while maintaining protection of this vital natural resource. This package includes regulatory reforms and innovative, non-regulatory policy approaches; it includes administrative actions that will take effect immediately, and legislative recommendations for Congress to consider during the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. The Clinton Administration looks forward to working closely with the Congress to implement this new approach to Federal wetlands policy. In addition, the Administration will establish an ongoing interagency working group, to be chaired by the Office on Environmental Policy, to monitor the implementation of the initiatives contained in the reform package.
The reform package includes the following initiatives:
Issue Definition: The program that regulates wetlands under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act has been criticized as being slow, unpredictable and unfair. For example, it has been claimed that permits take too long to obtain; that wetlands delineations are sometimes slow, inaccurate, and inconsistent; and that it is unfair that the Corps does not provide a process by which landowners can appeal a jurisdictional determination or the denial of a wetlands permit short of suffering the expense of going to court.
Administration Position: The Clinton Administration believes that the Federal government has a responsibility to the public to conduct such regulatory programs in a manner that is efficient, responsive and fair. Therefore, the Administration supports the following reforms that will reduce the impact of regulation on the public, while meeting our objectives to protect wetlands:
Issue Definition: Typically, decisions affecting wetlands are made on a project-by-project, permit-by-permit basis. This often precludes the effective consideration of the cumulative effects of piecemeal wetlands loss and degradation. It also hampers the ability of State, Tribal, regional, and local governments to integrate wetlands conservation objectives into the planning, management, and regulatory tools they use to make decisions regarding development and other natural resource issues. This can often result in inconsistent and inefficient efforts among agencies at all levels of government, and frustration and confusion among the public.
In contrast, advance planning, particularly comprehensive planning conducted on a watershed basis, offers the opportunity to have strong participation by State, Tribal, and local governments and private citizens in designing and implementing specific solutions to the most pressing environmental problems of that watershed. Advance planning generally involves at least the identification, mapping, and preliminary assessment of relative wetland functions within the planning area. More comprehensive advance planning may identify wetlands that merit a high level of protection and others that may be considered for development, and may also incorporate wetlands conservation into overall land use planning at the local level. Advance planning can provide greater predictability and certainty to property owners, developers, project planners, and local governments.
Administration Position: To encourage greater use of comprehensive advance planning, particularly with State, Tribal, regional, and local involvement, and to identify wetlands protection and restoration needs, opportunities, and concerns, the Administration supports the following actions:
Issue Definition: Two Federal statutes regulate certain activities in wetlands on agricultural lands. The Food Security Act Wetlands Conservation provision, which is known as the Swampbuster program, is administered by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. The Clean Water Act Section 404 program is administered jointly by the Department of the Army and the Environmental Protection Agency. American farmers have at times been subjected to needless duplication and frustrating inconsistency in the implementation of these two statutes.
Administration Position: The Administration recognizes the valuable contribution of agricultural producers to the Nation's economy and more generally to the American way of life. We also appreciate the challenges faced by farmers as they try to comply with wetlands regulations, as well as other environmental requirements affecting farm operations. As a result, the Administration is committed to ensuring that Federal wetlands programs do not place unnecessary restrictions or burdens on farmers and other landowners, while providing necessary environmental safeguards.
The Administration has identified a number of actions that can be taken to reduce the impact of these two wetlands protection programs on American agriculture. At the heart of this effort is a commitment on the part of all Federal agencies involved to work closely and cooperatively to coordinate their work under these two statutes so as to increase efficiency, minimize duplication, and reduce inconsistencies between the programs.
The following initiatives demonstrate our commitment to protect and restore the Nation's wetlands and eliminate unnecessary impacts on the farm community:
Issue Definition: A persistent criticism of the Section 404 regulatory program is that the permit process is inflexible to the extent that "all wetlands are treated the same" from a regulatory perspective. Such criticisms have led to calls for a nationwide categorization system to rank wetlands based upon their relative function and importance to society.
One proposed approach would require that all of the Nation's wetlands be mapped and categorized "up front" as either "high-", "medium-", or "low-value." The ranking based upon this a priori categorization would, in turn, govern the regulatory response at the time of a specific permit application. Administration Position: While conceptually a priori categorization and ranking may seem attractive, its technical, fiscal and environmental implications make it unworkable. For example, simply mapping the lower 48 States at a scale suitable for detailed regulatory use would involve a mammoth undertaking yielding nearly 14 million maps and costing in excess of $500 million. Assessing the functions of every wetland in the country would be a far larger and more complicated task and would require staffing and funding many times that necessary to complete mapping alone.
There is currently no scientific basis for a nationwide ranking of functionally distinct and diverse wetland types; any such scheme would be extremely difficult and require many years to develop. The suggestion contained in one legislative proposal that the Federal government buy all "high-value" wetlands would be infeasible from a budgetary standpoint. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the acquisition costs alone for the lower 48 States to range between $10 billion and $45 billion.
Finally, an a priori categorization and ranking approach would not provide for consideration of the individual impacts associated with specific projects. This makes little sense from the standpoint of either development or wetlands protection. For example, small projects with minor impacts would be arbitrarily prevented from proceeding in a "high-value" wetland area. At the same time, large and environmentally damaging projects would be automatically approved if they were located in "low-value" wetland areas. A nationwide a priori categorization scheme would further complicate the Section 404 program and would conflict with the Administration's goals of administering a scientifically sound regulatory program that is efficient, predictable and understandable.
In contrast to nationwide a priori categorization, opportunities exist to provide greater predictability and certainty in the regulatory process while increasing participation at the State and local levels. Local or regionally developed advance planning at the watershed level can provide a scientifically sound and workable framework for early consideration of variations in wetland functions within the Section 404 program. Appropriate functional assessment techniques can be applied to all wetlands within the boundaries of a particular watershed or planning area, and reasonably foreseeable development needs can be superimposed upon this inventory and assessment to identify appropriate regulatory responses in advance of specific permit applications. Highly functional and ecologically significant wetlands can be identified as deserving a very high standard of protection; conversely, wetlands with limited function and ecological significance, or activities that would cause minimal environmental harm, can be identified as appropriate for general permits or other regulatory streamlining methods.
In the context of individual permit reviews, the Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines currently provide the Corps and EPA with the flexibility to appropriately scale the regulatory response to reflect the relative function of the affected wetland, the character of the proposed discharge, and the probable environmental impact.
The Administration recognizes that "all wetlands are not the same" and that permit applicants deserve a timely and predictable regulatory response that is appropriate for the project being proposed. To this end, the Administration proposes the following actions:
The term "geographic jurisdiction" encompasses a set of wetlands issues that concern the determination of which waters fall within the jurisdiction of the Section 404 program of the Clean Water Act. These issues include the delineation manual that specifies the methodology by which wetlands are identified; the definitions of "wetlands" and "waters of the United States;" "artificial" wetlands; and isolated waters. (For "Delineation Training and Certification" see ADDRESSING LANDOWNER CONCERNS.)
Issue Definition: Delineation Manual
As previously indicated, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the manuals that Federal agencies use in the field to delineate wetlands. The 1989 Manual was strongly criticized by some who claimed that it was an attempt by the bureaucracy to greatly expand the geographic jurisdiction of wetlands regulation without opportunity for public involvement. The proposed 1991 Manual that followed was roundly criticized by those who claimed that it would greatly reduce the scope of geographic jurisdiction applied to wetlands. In an attempt to resolve this controversy, in the fall of 1992 the Congress directed EPA to fund a National Academy of Science (NAS) study of wetlands delineation. That study is expected to be completed in the Fall of 1994. Since January 1993, both the Corps and EPA have adopted the 1987 Manual, which was in use in some parts of the country prior to the issuance of the 1989 Manual.
Administration Position: The Clinton Administration supports the use of the 1987 Wetlands Delineation Manual by the Corps, EPA, SCS, and FWS pending the evaluation of the NAS study. (See "Guarantee Consistency in Delineations on Agricultural Lands" under AGRICULTURE.) The use of the 1987 Manual by the Corps and EPA has increased confidence and consistency in identifying wetlands and has diminished the controversy associated with the 1989 and 1991 manuals. If the Federal agencies jointly conclude that the 1987 Manual should be revised to respond to recommendations of the NAS, any proposed changes will be the subject of a process that will provide full opportunity for public comment. In addition, any proposed changes will be field tested by the agencies prior to final adoption to determine their impact in the real world.
To increase public confidence in the Section 404 regulatory program, the Administration recommends that the Congress endorse the continued use of the 1987 Manual in the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, pending recommendations that may result from the NAS study.
Issue Definition: Defining "Waters of the U.S." and "Wetlands"
The Clean Water Act regulates discharges to "navigable waters," which are defined in the statute as "waters of the United States." However, the Act does not contain a definition of "waters of the United States." Similarly, while the Act refers to "wetlands," the statute does not define the term. Explicit definitions of these terms in the statute, consistent with longstanding regulatory definitions, would clarify Congressional intent with regard to the scope of geographic jurisdiction under the Act.
Administration Position: The Administration recommends that Congress incorporate the definition of "waters of the United States" contained in existing EPA and Corps implementing regulations. To provide additional consistency among Clean Water Act and Food Security Act programs, Congress should also incorporate the definition of "wetlands" contained in the Clean Water Act regulatory definitions, which is essentially identical to the wetlands definition in the 1990 Farm Bill. (The Clean Water Act regulatory definition of wetlands is preferable because some States have used the definition in State wetlands statutes. To adopt a different definition at Federal and State levels of government would only create further confusion in the regulatory program.)
The EPA/Corps definition of "waters of the United States" explicitly includes recently promulgated language clarifying that "prior converted croplands" are not waters of the United States for purposes of the Clean Water Act. Congress should include this clarifying language in statute as well.
The Administration also recommends that Congress add examples of "isolated waters" (e.g., prairie potholes, vernal pools, and playa lakes) to the statutory definition of wetlands. From a scientific standpoint, isolated wetlands perform many of the same vital functions performed by other aquatic areas widely accepted as wetlands, such as flood control and groundwater recharge, as well as providing critical habitat for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, and contribute to achieving the objectives of the Clean Water Act both individually and as a class.
Issue Definition: "Artificial" Wetlands
Neither the Clean Water Act nor its implementing regulations distinguishes between natural and created wetlands. However, certain "artificial" wetlands do not normally exhibit the values and functions typically attributed to natural wetlands. These artificial wetlands are created inadvertently from upland by human activity and would revert to upland if such activity ceased. The fact that these areas are not specifically excluded from the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act in either statute or regulation has caused confusion.
Administration Position: The EPA and the Corps will incorporate examples of artificial wetlands, such as non-tidal drainage and irrigation ditches excavated on upland, into their regulations to clarify the types of waters that are generally not subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction because they are created out of upland.
Issue Definition: Mitigating the harmful effects of necessary development actions on the Nation's waters is a central premise of Federal wetland regulatory programs. The Section 404 regulatory program relies upon a sequential approach to mitigating these harmful effects by first avoiding unnecessary impacts, then minimizing environmental harm, and, finally, compensating for remaining unavoidable damage to wetlands and other waters through, for example, the restoration or creation of wetlands.
Mitigation banking refers to a wetland restoration, creation, or enhancement effort undertaken expressly for the purpose of compensating for unavoidable wetland losses in advance of development actions, when compensatory mitigation is not appropriate, practicable, or as environmentally beneficial at the development site. Units of restored or created wetland are expressed as "credits", and accumulated credits are subsequently withdrawn to offset "debits" incurred at the development site.
Administration Position: The sequential approach to mitigation provides a logical, predictable, and reasonable framework for mitigating impacts associated with proposed development actions. The Administration supports the use of mitigation banking in appropriate circumstances as a means of compensating for authorized wetland impacts.
The Administration is proposing the following actions to ensure that mitigation of environmental impacts within the Section 404 program is effective, predictable, and consistent with a watershed management perspective:
Issue Definition: This Nation has lost nearly half of the wetland acreage that existed in the lower 48 States prior to European settlement. Much of this loss was due to Federal policies from an earlier era that encouraged the drainage of wetlands. The effect of this wetland loss is reflected in declining populations of fish, waterfowl, and other living things dependent upon the aquatic environment; in degraded water quality; and, most recently, in the extent of flooding in the Midwest.
The Section 404 regulatory program under the Clean Water Act and the Swampbuster provisions under the Food Security Act are attempts to stem this loss of wetlands. At best, the regulatory approach can ensure no further overall net loss. But to achieve a positive increase in the Nation's wetlands will require the restoration of some damaged wetlands.
Our ability to restore wetlands, particularly inland wetlands in agricultural areas, has been well-established over the last decade. A number of private and governmental entities have successfully restored degraded or lost wetlands to productive status. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with private landowners across the Nation, has implemented 9,500 restoration projects affecting 200,000 acres. Last year, a 50,000 acre pilot of the USDA Wetlands Reserve Program received proposals from 2,300 farmers to restore 500,000 acres.
Administration Position: Restoring some former wetlands that have been drained previously or otherwise destroyed to functioning wetlands is key to achieving the Administration's interim goal of no overall net loss of the Nation's remaining wetlands, and its long term goal to increase the quality and quantity of the Nation's wetlands base.
In support of a broad-based effort to restore a portion of the Nation's historic wetlands base that has been destroyed or degraded in the past, the Administration proposes to take the following actions:
Issue Definition: Public support for Federal wetlands protection programs, such as the Clean Water Act Section 404 regulatory program and the Food Security Act Swampbuster program, has suffered during recent years from a perception that multiple agency roles in the Administration of these programs has contributed to confusion, delays, overlap, and a general sense that no single agency is "in charge".
Administration Position: The Administration is initiating steps to streamline the implementation of Federal wetlands protection programs by reducing duplication, overlap, and delay. For example, a memorandum of agreement has recently been signed to give the Soil Conservation Service, in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead agency for making wetlands delineations and mitigation decisions on agricultural land (see AGRICULTURE).
The Administration is committed to providing for effective and timely participation by the agencies with roles in Federal programs affecting wetlands while emphasizing the ultimate role of a single Federal agency decisionmaker. This increased coordination among the relevant agencies will be accomplished through the following mechanism:
Issue Definition: Decisions on where and how to protect or restore wetlands can be often most appropriately made at State, Tribal, or local levels. However, the current Section 404 regulatory program is run at the Federal level, except for certain waters in one State (Michigan). Many States, Tribes, and local governments have their own wetlands programs, which often overlap, are inconsistent with, or are simply distinct from Federal programs. This has resulted in inefficiency, frustration by the regulated public, and significant confusion.
Administration Position: The Administration is committed to increasing State, Tribal, and local government roles in Federal wetlands protection and restoration efforts. To increase consistency and clarity and reduce the confusion generated by the current relationship between the Federal government and State, Tribal, and local governments in wetlands protection and restoration, and to bring decision making to more appropriate levels, the Administration is taking the following actions:
Issue Definition: The Clean Water Act Section 404 program regulates "discharges" of dredged and fill material to wetlands and other waters of the United States. In the past, these terms have been interpreted in a way that created regulatory "loopholes" under which certain projects could be designed, using expensive and sophisticated methods, so that they did not require Section 404 authorization.
The environmental effects of these projects on wetlands are no different than less sophisticated projects involving discharges of dredged or fill material, which have been regulated under Section 404. Also, these loopholes have led to inconsistencies in how the Section 404 program has been implemented around the country.
Administration Position: The Administration has issued a final regulation, and is asking Congress to take corresponding legislative action, to close these regulatory loopholes by clarifying the types of activities that involve discharges of dredged or fill material subject to Section 404 review.
The following actions will result in better protection of wetlands, and improve the fairness, predictability, and consistency of the Section 404 program.
Issue Definition: The extent and nature of Alaska wetlands reflect, in part, climatological and physiographic conditions found in no other State. More than 99 percent of Alaska's wetlands remain, and much of the State's developable lands are wetlands. This abundance of wetlands in combination with Alaska's short building season, leads some to claim that the Section 404 program places a heavier burden on Alaskans than on the rest of the country.
The previous Administration attempted to address some of these concerns by proposing the "Alaska 1% rule" which would have exempted wetlands in Alaska from mitigation requirements until one percent of Alaska's wetland resources had been developed. The "Alaska 1% rule" was published for public comment in November 1992, and 83 percent of the over 6,500 comments received objected to the rule, raising concerns about its potential impact on the environment.
Objections to the proposed rule focused on several key considerations:
Administration Position: Because of the significant adverse environmental consequences that it would allow, the "Alaska 1% rule" will be withdrawn. The best way to address Alaska-specific concerns regarding the Section 404 program is through targeting the specific areas where questions about program policies or implementation have been raised. Finalizing the proposed "Alaska 1% rule" would have far broader and avoidable adverse environmental consequences.
The EPA and the Corps will, within the next 90 days, initiate meetings with the Federal resource agencies, State and local government agencies, representatives of native villages, industry groups including oil and fishing interests, and environmental groups, to consider other environmentally appropriate means to assure regulatory flexibility and the feasibility of alternative permitting procedures in Alaska.
In addition, the Administration is proposing a number of actions to improve implementation of the Section 404 regulatory program nationwide (e.g., issuing guidance on flexibility in the Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines, mitigation banking, mitigation planning, advance planning, programmatic general permits; establishing an administrative appeals process; providing for more explicit consideration of wetland functions; and regionalizing Nationwide Permit number 26. See earlier discussion for details). These actions, in combination with any Alaska- specific proposals developed as a result of the process outlined above, should contribute significantly to addressing Alaska's concerns with implementation of the Section 404 regulatory program.
Issue Definition: Some critics of the Section 404 regulatory program have asserted that Federal efforts to protect wetlands constitute a "taking" of private property and require compensation under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Critics of the program have proposed legislation that would characterize permit denial decisions, and other Section 404 regulatory actions, as "takings" requiring compensation.
Administration Position: The Administration strongly supports private property rights. The equitable administration of any Federal regulatory program involves more than strict technical considerations and must include sensitivity to the rights and expectations of citizens. Implementation of the Section 404 program often requires a balancing of environmental protection, public interests, and individual interests.
Many activities undertaken on wetlands either are not regulated at all, are explicitly exempted from regulation, or are authorized by general permits. In situations where individual permits are required, the Federal agencies can work with permit applicants to design projects that meet the requirements of the law and protect the environment and public safety, while protecting the property rights of the applicant. However, in rare instances the public interest in conserving wetlands may substantially interfere with the rights of landowners. In such instances, Federal action will be based on the proposition that restrictions on the actions of the property owners in question are called for in order to protect the property rights, safety, environmental or economic interests of other individuals or the community at large.
In those situations where the necessary restrictions on use amount to a taking of the property, the owner will, of course, be entitled to compensation. Moreover, where a property owner believes that government action amounts to a taking, the courts are available to review such claims and to determine whether compensation is due. Due to the unique nature of each situation, these issues must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, the Administration does not support a legislative approach to this issue.
The Administration is strongly committed to reducing the impact of the 404 program on landowners. Many of the Administration positions that have been described in this paper are designed to make the program as efficient, predictable, consistent, and equitable as possible (see ADDRESSING LANDOWNER CONCERNS, AGRICULTURE and CATEGORIZATION).
This comprehensive reform package represents a tremendous opportunity to move beyond the unnecessary polarization that has characterized the wetlands policy debate in recent years. While divisive, that debate has not been without value.
The critics of the wetlands regulatory program have performed a service to the country by highlighting the need for meaningful reform in the administration of wetland regulatory programs. Many of the much-needed reforms contained in this package -- such as permit deadlines, an appeals process, the use of mitigation banks, and increasing the role of State and local government in wetlands regulation -- have been proposed by critics of the current regulatory program.
The supporters of wetlands protection have also performed a service by helping to inform the Nation of the environmental and economic importance of wetlands, a vital natural resource that was once routinely destroyed. Their strong commitment to protecting and restoring this vital resource is also reflected in this package.
There will, no doubt, be individuals on each side of this divisive debate who will not be entirely pleased with every element of this reform package. But our approach provides effective protection of an important natural resource in a manner that is both fair and flexible, thus recognizing both the value of wetland resources and the need to minimize regulatory burdens.
The entire Nation shares the pain of those Americans experiencing the physical destruction and economic loss caused by the disastrous floods that have devastated the Nation's heartland. Many lives have been lost, and billions of dollars in damage have been caused to property and crops. In the short term, we must use the tools available to us to assist those struggling to deal with severe economic hardship due to the floods. We must concentrate our attention on helping people rebuild their lives by protecting our riverfront communities and providing assistance to businesses and the agricultural community adversely affected by the floods.
We must also look to the future, and learn from these floods how to more effectively protect human health and safety, property, and the environment. Many scientists have concluded that past manipulation of the rivers in the Midwest has contributed to the current level of devastation by separating the river channels from their natural floodplains, eliminating millions of acres of additional flood storage capacity. Wetlands within the floodplain and higher in the watershed reduce floods by absorbing rain, snow melt, and floodwaters and releasing it slowly, thereby reducing the severity of downstream flooding.
We must be cautious not to repeat policies and practices which may have added to the destruction caused by these floods. One way to assist landowners while alleviating some flood risks is through funding wetlands restoration and acquisition programs targeted to help those in flood-ravaged areas. Programs such as the USDA Wetlands Reserve Program provide farmers with much needed support and increase the quantity of flood-absorbing wetlands in this region.
Of course, we recognize that wetlands and river system restoration and protection alone will not suffice. It will be critically important that we quickly rebuild many of the flood control structures. However, we have learned the importance of also looking at alternative non-structural measures that may provide as much or better flood damage reduction at the same or lower cost. Such measures would include using more natural river corridor systems and wetlands. In the longer term, it is important that all potential flood control measures, both structural and non-structural, be considered and evaluated from a pragmatic and cost-benefit standpoint.
It is not a question of whether to protect cities and farms; it is a question of how best to protect them. In the case of riverfront communities, protective levees may be the only reasonable answer, but in other circumstances, non-structural measures may make more sense. We can identify ways to protect and restore our river and wetlands systems so that they work for us, integrated with structural flood control measures. Of course, wetlands that provide flood control generally will also provide other important functions, such as fish and wildlife habitat, water quality improvement, and recreational opportunities. In our response to this flood-borne tragedy, the Administration will pursue measures that are the most effective means to prevent this catastrophe from happening again. Doubtless this will involve a combination of repair and construction of flood control structures together with restoration of natural flood attenuating river and wetlands systems.