After two years of study, the Clinton administration has drafted a revision of regulations protecting some of the nation's most environmentally sensitive lands, opting for a program that critics said Wednesday would leave pockets of wetlands across the country open to development.
Among the newly vulnerable sites are undeveloped sections of Orange County and northern San Diego County, according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club.
"What this is is a license to fill wetlands," said Gordon Labedz, a member of the club's executive committee.
For wetland tracts of less than 10 acres, development permits would be considered in a speedier, less demanding process under the proposed rules.
The new regulations, which may be announced as early as Friday, were written by the Army Corps of Engineers. The agency set out in 1996 to streamline the process used by developers to obtain permission to fill wetlands.
Critics of relaxed wetlands policies often point to the stretch of California between San Francisco and Sacramento, where shopping centers, office parks and housing subdivisions have proliferated and already fill small wetlands, as being particularly vulnerable to further development.
As charted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, California has lost 91% of its original wetlands, a greater percentage than any other state.
The Corps of Engineers said the new plan would restrict the amount of wetlands subject to destruction by construction projects.
But even as environmentalists complained that the regulations would open more land to speedier development, Kent Colton, National Assn. of Home Builders' executive vice president, complained that the permit plan represents "a move in the wrong direction" and said that it "sacrificed regulatory efficiency in exchange for questionable environmental benefit."
Under the Clean Water Act, federal government permission must be obtained before wetlands can be filled. The Corps of Engineers offers two broad categories of permits:
One, unaffected by the changes, requires extensive documentation and verification that there is no alternative to filling a specific wetland and formal approval before any work can begin. The other, available for development of wetlands covering no more than three acres, requires much less documentation and allows a developer to begin work 45 days after filing the necessary paperwork unless the Corps objects.
Under revisions being proposed for the second permit, known as Nationwide Permit 26, the less demanding process would be available for developments covering up to 10 acres of wetlands and would be applied to a greater variety of wetlands, including marshes along non-tidal streams, as well as headwaters at stream sources and the isolated wetlands not connected with running water.
"We don't like them," Andrew Caputo, an attorney specializing in wetlands issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the proposed changes. "They're very broad. . . . They'll make it easier for developers to fill wetlands."
Although the system is being revised to give regional Corps of Engineers offices greater flexibility, Caputo questioned whether local offices would be likely to offer greater environmental protections than the national office has written into its regulations.
To the untrained eye, wetlands--which, in some cases, are rarely wet--can appear to be nothing but common mudholes, marsh and woods. But scientists and environmentalists consider them crucial breeding and feeding habitats for both common and disappearing species of birds, amphibians and fish.
The term wetland applies to topographical depressions known as prairie potholes, which are desert-like in a summer drought but fill with snowmelt and rain runoff during the spring, when they attract migrating birds. It also applies to small ponds near Sacramento, known as vernal pools, that are home to 1-inch-long, brine-loving creatures called fairy shrimp.
Drafting revisions of the permits, and the conditions for granting them, has been an arduous process. Objections from several government agencies charged with protecting the environment, particularly the Fish and Wildlife Service, forced the Corps to retreat several times and to put off the final announcement of its draft on more than one occasion.
The wildlife agency has said that it plans to file formal objections during a 60-day comment period after the Corps formally publishes its plan in the Federal Register.
The Corps of Engineers plans to review such comments and then issue a final plan in December, to take effect early next year.