Removing State Protection for Isolated Wetlands

June 26, 2013: An earlier post talked briefly about a section of Senate Bill 638 (N.C. Farm Act  of 2013) that would eliminate water quality protection for isolated wetlands by excluding wetlands that fall outside federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction from the definition of “waters of the state”. Although the language has changed somewhat, the bill approved by the Senate last month still has the effect of removing water quality protection from wetlands that fall outside federal permitting jurisdiction.  The limit on federal jurisdiction has nothing to do with the value of the wetland — it has to do with how the U.S. Constitution divides responsibility between the  federal  government and the states. Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce has been the constitutional basis for federal environmental laws, so Clean Water Act permitting programs only apply to navigable waters (including tributaries and wetlands connected to those waters). Wetlands that have no connection  to navigable waters  fall entirely under state jurisdiction. Section 20 of Senate Bill 638 (as it passed the Senate)  would remove state protection for those “isolated” wetlands and allow the wetlands to be filled, excavated or used for waste disposal without a water quality permit.

As noted in the earlier post, the wetlands provision appears in a farm bill but developers may get most of the benefit. Since then, I have looked back at the state’s isolated wetlands rules and found that most (and possibly all) agricultural activities are already exempt.  The isolated wetlands permitting rule, 15A NCAC 2H.1301, has a list of exemptions from the permit requirement and the first is for  “[a]ctivities that are described in 15A NCAC 02B .0230”.  The activities described in 15A NCAC 02B.0230 include:

     (1)  normal, on-going silviculture, farming and ranching activities such as plowing, seeding,   cultivating,minor drainage and harvesting for the production of food, fiber and forest products, or upland soil and water conservation practices…

(2)  maintenance, including emergency reconstruction of recently damaged parts, of currently serviceable structures such as dikes, dams, levees, groins, riprap, breakwaters, causeways, and bridge abutments or approaches, and transportation structuresand other maintenance, repairs or modification to existing structures as required by the NC Dam Safety Program;

(3)  construction and maintenance of farm or stock ponds or irrigation ditches.  In addition, new pond construction in designated river basins with riparian buffer protection regulations also must comply with relevant portions of those regulations;

(4)  maintenance of drainage ditches, provided that spoil is removed to high ground, placed on top of previous spoil, or placed parallel to one side or the other of the ditch within a distance of 20 feet and spoils are placed in a manner that minimizes damages to existing wetlands; and ditch maintenance is no greater than the original depth, length and width of the ditch;

(5)  construction of temporary sediment control measures or best management practices as required by the NC Sediment and Erosion Control Program on a construction site…; and

(6)  construction or maintenance of farm roads, forest roads, and temporary roads for moving mining equipment where such roads are constructed and maintained in accordance with best management practices…

The existing agricultural exemptions are so broad, that it is difficult to think of anything that may still be a problem for farmers — but at the very least an amendment intended to protect agricultural activity could be much narrower than the language adopted by the Senate. Having easily passed the Senate, the bill is now in the House where the path has become a little rockier. It appears that the N.C. Homebuilders Association has been lobbying hard for the provision, but a new version of the bill approved by a House Judiciary subcommittee this morning dropped the wetland language. The bill now goes to the House floor; an effort to amend the bill to restore language excluding isolated wetlands from water quality permitting requirements is likely.