A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that the rate of loss of wetland area has slowed over the past decade. From 1986 to 1997, the estimated annual rate of wetland loss (58,545 acres per year) was about 23% that of the previous decade. Wetland losses due to agriculture declined precipitously, and there were significant reductions in losses due to urban and rural development. The decrease in wetland loss due to development may be attributable to the 404 permit process; however, the available data are not sufficient for drawing a firm conclusion.
The Corps of Engineers keeps data on the areas of permitted fill and areas of compensatory mitigation required as a condition for permits. From 1993 to 2000, approximately 24,000 acres of wetlands were permitted to be filled, and 42,000 acres were required as compensatory mitigation on an annual basis. Thus, 1.8 acres were supposed to be mitigated (i.e., gained) for every 1 acre permitted (i.e., lost). If the mitigation conditions specified in permits were actually being met, this ratio suggests that the 404 permit program could be described as resulting in a net gain in jurisdictional wetland area and function in the United States. The committee, however, found that the data available from the Corps were not adequate for determining the status of the required compensation wetlands. In addition, the data do not report the wetland functions that were lost due to the permitted fill. Further, the literature on compensatory mitigation suggests that required mitigation projects often are not undertaken or fail to meet permit conditions. Therefore, the committee is not convinced that the goal of no net loss for permitted wetlands is being met for wetland functions. The magnitude of the shortfall is not precisely known and cannot be determined from current data.
The wetland area and functions lost and regained over time should be tracked in a national database. This database could include the Corps of Engineers' Regulatory Analysis and Management System database.
The Corps of Engineers should expand and improve quality assurance measures for data entry in the Regulatory Analysis and Management System database.
The Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with states, should encourage the establishment of watershed organizations responsible for tracking, monitoring, and managing wetlands in public ownership or under easement.
Conclusion 2: A watershed approach would improve permit decision making.
Wetland functions must be understood within a watershed framework in order to secure the purposes of the Clean Water Act. The federal