A proposal to set aside money to buy freshwater wetlands rather than protecting them through regulations gets it half right.
South Carolina needs both to adequately protect this critical natural resource.
Using money from the state's deed recording fee -- the funding source for the state's Conservation Bank -- to buy wetlands property not protected under state and federal law is a solid approach. The state charges $1.85 for each $500 in value of property transferred. Twenty-five cents of that goes to the Conservation Bank. The proposal being discussed would take another 5 cents for wetlands preservation.
The idea would be to encourage property owners to protect wetlands, rather than pass regulations to protect them. But it's not enough if an owner is determined to develop the property and fill the wetlands. Regulations must be in place, too.
For the past decade, protecting isolated freshwater wetlands has been a big question mark. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that wetlands not connected to navigable waterways did not fall under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Clean Water Act. The corps' designation of an area as a wetland had been a starting point for state regulation.
In two separate rulings in 2010 and 2011, the state Supreme Court found that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has the authority to regulate these wetlands regardless of their standing under federal law.
In the 2010 ruling, the court reaffirmed the state agency's authority in the eight coastal counties under the Coastal Zone Management Plan. The 2011 ruling set out the state's authority under the Pollution Control Act, taking into account wetlands across the state.
South Carolina has an estimated 300,000 acres of isolated wetlands. About 200,000 of those acres are in the eight-county coastal plain, with about 16,000 acres in Beaufort County.
The coastal management plan lays out why these wetlands should be protected. They provide critical habitat for wildlife and plant species, help prevent pollutants from reaching our waterways, prevent flooding and help recharge our aquifers.
The legislature's reaction to the 2011 ruling was to prohibit private citizens from suing under the Pollution Control Act and to set up a study group to look at wetlands issues -- again. Similar efforts in 2003 and 2004 came up empty.
Most disturbing is the idea that regulations are such an anathema in this state, that we can't use them to protect a vital resource, whose destruction costs all of us in the long run. We're fooling ourselves if we don't think there's a price for this regulatory freedom. Bluffton's plan to improve water quality in the May River, for instance, includes restoring wetlands in the Stoney Creek area at an estimated cost of $500,000. That's just one small example.
Purchasing wetlands property to prevent problems down the road and preserve habitat is a good investment, but it can't be the only way to do it. The Conservation Bank has been on life support for too many years during the real estate downturn and recession to say that once a program and its funding mechanism are in place, we no longer have to worry.
Purchasing property outright or putting it under conservation easement are sound ways to address wetlands protection. Such a transaction generally involves a willing seller.
But if property owners are not so inclined, we must have in place other ways to protect this resource.