COLUMBUS, Ohio -- More than half of the nation's wetlands may be at risk as a result of legislation recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, a new report suggests.

Authors of the report, which was produced by a committee of the National Research Council (NRC), say that the wetlands provisions of the House bill reauthorizing the Clean Water Act lack scientific basis and threaten existing wetlands.

The NRC report, which was commissioned by Congress in 1993 as a non-partisan attempt to end political rancor over wetlands, does not comment specifically on the recently passed legislation. Its findings, however, generally contradict the regulatory approach called for in the bill, said William J. Mitsch, professor of natural resources at Ohio State University and one of the committee of 17 prominent wetlands scientists that drafted the report. The definition of wetlands in the House bill is much more restrictive than that formulated by the NRC wetlands committee members, Mitsch said.

If the House definition were to become law, between 50 and 70 percent of currently protected wetlands could lose their protected status, he said.

The House bill defines wetlands as lands saturated by water at the surface for 21 consecutive days during the growing season. The bill also requires that lands designated as protected wetlands have typical wetlands soils and plants.

The NRC report, on the other hand, defines wetlands as lands regularly inundated or saturated by water at or near the surface. While the report notes that wetlands soils and plants are common features of wetlands, it doesn't require them as part of the definition.

"The scientific wetlands definition in the report places major emphasis on the importance of hydrology as the defining characteristic of wetlands," said Mitsch. Wetlands soils and plants can be removed or even prevented from occurring by physical, biological and human factors, he noted.

Perhaps the most controversial provision in the bill passed by the House is the idea of ranking wetlands according to their ecological value. Under this plan, only the most ecologically important wetlands would be afforded full federal protection.

This idea is popular among Republican legislators. However, according to the wetlands committee members, such a system is not yet possible.

"Assessment of value requires comprehensive scientific knowledge of wetland functions," Mitsch said. "Although wetlands are perhaps the most important environmental issue out there, we still don't know that much about them. The uncertainties are many."

More important than rating wetlands by their value, say the scientists who drafted the NRC report, is adopting one definition for all types of wetlands, while taking into account obvious regional differences.

"It seems as if the federal government is going in the direction of having two definitions of wetlands -- one for agricultural lands and one for other lands," said Mitsch. "As scientists, we on the committee think that's silly. Wetlands are wetlands. At the same time, Alaska is not the same as Florida. There has to be a regional nature to these things. A regionalization of wetland delineation should be developed on the basis of geology, vegetation, climate and prevailing land use."

Mitsch said he hopes the findings and recommendations of the NRC report will be considered in the coming months, as debate begins in the U.S. Senate over reauthorization of the Clean Water Act.

"The NRC report is an honest attempt to help the policy- makers and wetlands managers in the country as they continue to formulate policy on wetlands in the United States," he said. "In the report, we made the statement that 'the federal regulatory system for protection of wetlands is scientifically sound and effective in most respects.' That's true. It just needs a little fine-tuning. The House bill would significantly weaken these protections."

The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

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Contact: William J. Mitsch, (614) 292-9774

Written by Kelly McConaghy Kershner, (614) 292-8308