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Colorado Legislature considers wetlands protection

Colorado's wetlands and streams could gain needed protections through legislation currently under discussion in the Colorado House of Representatives. Previously, development of wetlands required review and approval by the federal Army Corps of Engineers, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year stripped protections under the federal Clean Water Act from perhaps as much as 1 million acres of Colorado's wetlands.

With federal oversight removed from dredge and fill activities that could destroy wetlands and ephemeral streams, Colorado needs to step up and fill the regulatory hole left behind. The federal program was plagued by constantly shifting definitions of which wetlands deserved what kinds of protections. In the most significant rollback of the Clean Water Act in 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency last year ended up siding with development interests to limit protected wetlands to only those with a direct surface connection to flowing waters. That narrow definition leaves out a vast number of the wetlands typical of our more arid climate across southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, the Colorado House bill will provide certainty for protecting all wetlands. A good example from around our neck of the woods is atop Wolf Creek Pass. There, substantial fens and wetlands might be considered isolated from surface waters, and without protection under Colorado law could be much more susceptible to extensive commercial development, as has been proposed.

Many other wetlands in our region are critical for recharging groundwater and domestic well supplies. The wet meadows and intermittent wetlands that characterize many of our valleys provide an important impediment to wildfires. They also provide riparian habitat to support many species of wildlife.

Absent any federal protection of wetlands, it's crucial for Colorado to assume jurisdiction. The House bill, numbered HB24-1379 would direct the Colorado Water Quality Commission to include wetlands protection within its existing scope of responsibility.

The House bill could be considered for a vote by the full legislature in the next few days, and legislators will be listening to constituents for their feedback. Already, our local Rep. Barbara McLachlan supported the bill in the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee, and her enthusiastic endorsement was welcomed by conservation advocates.

It probably comes as little surprise there are development interests less enthused about replacing the wetlands protection rules lost at the federal level with new state rules. A competing bill has been introduced in the Colorado state Senate, one that offers far fewer protections and exempts many categories of wetlands from protection. It could leave places like Wolf Creek Pass' fens and wetlands high and dry. The Senate version also creates a new bureaucracy to regulate wetlands development that adds substantial new costs and complexity.

Many of our state's wetlands are filled by seasonal snowmelt, which in turn supply springs throughout the rest of year. Ensuring they can't be degraded protects Colorado's water supply, and as our climate dries and changes, that buffer will be invaluable.

There's no shortage of reasons to protect Colorado's wetlands. Wetlands function as natural filtration systems that ensure downstream quality for drinking water, recreation, and agriculture use. The spongy soils that compose a wetland serve as naturally distributed water storage, storing water during wet periods and slowly releasing it during dry spells. Wetlands are the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world and support more than 90% of Colorado’s wildlife use.

Let's hope our legislators agree, and support the strong new protections in HB24-1379.

Mark Pearson is Executive Director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.