When is progress on conservation bittersweet?

When you’re told help is on the way — but it’s coming at a very slow pace.

That’s where fish, wildlife, and sportsmen stand today with the news that the Obama Administration has finally moved to help restore Clean Water Act protection to 20 million acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of trout streams stripped by the Supreme Court more than 12 years ago.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this long, sad story. But for newcomers, here’s a recap:
– In 2001 and 2006 The Supremes agreed with developers that the 1972 Congress, which passed the Clean Water Act, never intended for it to cover isolated and temporary wetlands. Unfortunately, that included the prairie potholes and playa lakes, critical waterfowl habitat, as well as vital riparian habitat on cold-water trout stream across the west.

– Sportsmen thought the fix would be simple: Just get all those congressmen who love them to write a bill saying, “Yes, we want those wetlands covered.” That gave birth to the Clean Water Restoration Act. But it turned out House members who like sportsmen actually love developers and agricultural interests. While the Senate passed a version of the bill, nothing ever came out of the house during the G.W. Bush years.

– Sportsmen thought they found a hero when President Obama took office and promised to be green. Sure enough, even while the House stood firm against wetlands, Obama’s team promised to restore at least some protection by issuing new guidance to agencies on what could be protected. But the president got weak wetland knees during the election cycle (didn’t want to be called a wetlands-hugger with unemployment so high), and nothing ever came out.

That all changed this week when the administration announced it was beginning to work-up a new rule on wetlands protection based on an EPA study of all peer-revived research on how those isolated wetlands were – and were not – connected to streams, which would make many of them no longer really isolated.

That brought cheers from sportsmen’s groups and other conservation organizations because they believe the bottom line of that study will be a big plus for those abandoned wetlands. And they also saw this as almost a last-chance.

That’s because this isn’t going to be a quick fix. The proposed rule probably won’t come out of the administration for at least 90 days, after which it goes out for public comment for another 90 days. With industry set to oppose anything that puts protections back where they were, Jan Goldman-Carter, Wetlands and Water Resources Counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, said she expects at least 500,000 comments. And that will take the EPA about a year or more to read and then make any tweaks to the rule it feel are necessitated.

“It’s really a good thing they are finally moving forward with this rule,” said Goldman-Carter. “We have known we needed the rule, and we also knew that the process would take about two years. So if we didn’t begin moving now, then we’d come to the end of the Obama Administration and we’d have no chance of getting anything done in the foreseeable future after that.”

This was, indeed, good news: The wound carved into the Clean Water Act is finally going to be addressed. But the slow pace means we’ll continue to loose wetlands for the next two years. And that loss won’t be inconsequential.

According to Ducks Unlimited, “The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wetlands status and trends report for 2004-2008 — the first full assessment period since the first of the Supreme Court cases – showed that the rate of wetland loss had increased by 140 percent since the 1998-2004 period. Acceleration of wetland drainage had not been documented since the CWA was first enacted. Two other recent studies documented the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in the prairie pothole states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana in recent years.”

So, we can thank the Obama Administration for finally stepping up. Now we’ve got to work on the House to make sure we don’t bleed to death before this is finally done.