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The Planet

Protecting Wetlands Will Decrease Flooding, Say New Club Reports

The Planet, June 1997, Volume 4, number 5

by John Byrne Barry

Louisville, Ky., elementary-school teacher Doris Wilson knew there was something wrong last summer when she found a river in her yard and it hadn't even rained. Then this spring, when it did rain -- for several days -- three feet of water forced Wilson and her son from their home for two months.

As part of the Sierra Club's campaign to show the link between the massive floods of the past few years and taxpayer-subsidized wetlands destruction, Wilson testified before the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee in April. She told the panel that she had lived in her home for nearly 20 years and had never before been flooded -- until a neighboring developer destroyed the nearby Sutherland wetlands last summer. She tried to stop the wetland destruction, but it was perfectly legal. Taxpayers even paid for part of it through road and tax subsidies.

"When the developer destroyed the wetland, they destroyed the 'natural sponge' that could soak up much of the downpour, thus minimizing the effect of flooding," said Wilson in her testimony.

In two flood reports this spring -- "Floods, Death and Wetlands Destruction" and "$ubsidizing Disaster," the Club found that those states suffering the greatest loss of life and property -- California, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa -- were those that have lost the most wetlands (more than 80 percent), and that U.S. taxpayers pay $7 billion annually for federal programs that destroy wetlands and thereby increase the risk of flood damage.

"Over the last four years, floods have killed 500 people and destroyed $33 billion in homes and property," said Brett Hulsey, Midwest regional representative and lead author of the reports. "Yet the Interior Department itself has identified more than 40 federal programs that encourage wetlands destruction and development in floodplains."

The federal government currently approves more than 90 percent of applications from farmers and developers to destroy wetlands, resulting in a loss of 70,000 to 90,000 acres each year. Why are wetlands regulations so weak in light of the price of their destruction? Hulsey suggests that the "$25 million that wetland developers and wetland-polluter political-action groups have given over to congressional and presidential candidates since 1989" could be to blame. The majority of those contributions went to officials who are now leading the charge to weaken wetlands protections.

To take action: Find out if your home is built on a wetland or floodplain by checking with your insurance agent or calling the National Flood Insurance Program at (800) 638- 6620.

Support a phaseout of all new wetland-destruction permits in high-flood wetlands and floodplains, and support cuts in funding for tax-subsidized wetlands destruction programs.

Urge President Clinton to cancel Nationwide Permit 29, which allows developers to build homes in wetlands and floodplains. Thank him for phasing out Permit 26, which allowed the destruction of isolated wetlands. Call the president at (202) 456-1111; e-mail: president@whitehouse.gov.

For more information and a copy of these reports, send a $10 check made out to the Sierra Club Foundation for each report to: Sierra Club Midwest Office, 214 N. Henry St., Suite 203, Madison, WI 53703; (608) 257-4994; e-mail: mw.field@sierraclub.org.

http://www.sierraclub.org/planet/199706/wetlands.asp


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