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PD Editorial: Preserving protection for California’s vital wetlands

Wetlands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its website, are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs.

The EPA calls wetlands “biological supermarkets” for wildlife and notes that more than a third of all threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands. Some medicines are derived from wetland plants and soil. These marshes and swamps also act as natural sponges, collecting and filtering urban runoff, recharging groundwater supplies and providing a line of defense against flooding.

Yet the EPA, under President Donald Trump, is moving to strip federal protection from about half of the nation's year-round and seasonal wetlands. Sad, but not surprising.

Here in California, where 90% of the natural wetlands have been filled in or plowed under, public agencies and conservation groups are allied in preservation and restoration efforts, including ongoing projects on the edges of San Pablo and San Francisco bays.

Fortunately, the federal rollback shouldn't get in the way.

Under the Clean Water Act, states are allowed to enforce rules more stringent than federal standards. On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted rules that largely mirror the federal regulations the Trump administration plans to repeal.

California's new rules had been in the works since 2008, but the process took on added urgency when the Trump administration announced its intention to relax federal wetlands protections.

“The threat of the Trump administration rollback has really amplified interest and concern about a need for developing state-level protection,” Julia Stein, a supervising attorney at UCLA's environmental law clinic, told the Los Angeles Times.

For a primer on wetlands, look no further than our own backyard. The Bay Area is the largest estuary on the West Coast or North America. But between the Gold Rush and the late 20th century, about a third of the bay was filled in, resulting in the loss of about 150,000 acres of tidal marshes.

Restoration benefits wildlife, water quality and nearby communities. A study published by the Coastal Conservancy and other stakeholders in 2016 concluded that restoring 54,000 acres of bay wetlands would mitigate much of the damage from rising sea levels and higher storm surges associated with climate change.

The regulations targeted by the Trump administration were adopted under President Barack Obama and specifically address small streams and tributaries that can deliver pollutants into larger bodies of water like the bay. The regulations were opposed by agricultural interests, including the California Farm Bureau. But the Farm Bureau dropped its opposition to the new state rules prior to this week's vote.

California's new rules rely on scientific conclusions used for the existing federal regulations. Unfortunately, science doesn't seem to have much influence these days in official Washington, where environmentally sensitive wetlands seem to be the only swamps getting drained.

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