America's Disappearing Wetlands

August 19, 1983

Report Outline
Struggle Over Protection
Understanding Wetlands
Federal and State Issues
Special Focus

Struggle Over Protection

Slow Official Recognition of Their Value

More than 11 million acres of American wetlands, an expanse twice the size of New Jersey, have been drained for farmland, homesites, roads and other uses in the past 30 years. Ten times that amount has been lost since the first European settlers arrived here. Yet, until recently, few people gave much thought to wetlands preservation. On the contrary, it was widely believed that wetlands — marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, tidal flats and prairie potholes — were wastelands. Writers and storytellers infused them with evil and mystery. And they posed a real enough public health threat as breeding grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes.

The environmental movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s cast wetlands in a new light. Researchers demonstrated that marshes and swamps were worth billions annually in wildlife production, groundwater “recharge” — reentry into underground reservoirs — and for flood, pollution and erosion control. Congress took heed and made wetlands protection a national goal with passage of the 1972 federal Water Pollution Control Act. The law's aim was to make the nation's waters safe and clean once again by upgrading waste-water treatment plants, controlling dumping of toxic wastes and regulating the disposal of dredge and fill materials in waterways. Whether Congress intended to extend federal jurisdiction over all wetlands became, and remains, a matter of intense dispute within Congress and among the federal agencies involved in implementing the legislation.

Since 1972, Congress has had ample opportunity to abandon wetlands regulation, but instead has killed every industry-backed bill to do so. The Reagan administration, however, has taken up the critics' cause and mandated numerous regulatory changes to ease restrictions. Those changes are being challenged in federal court by environmental groups. Congress, too, is again struggling with the issue this year as it considers reauthorization of existing wetlands legislation.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Sep. 02, 2022  Preserving the Seas
Jun. 17, 2022  Plastic Pollution
Dec. 17, 2021  Endangered Species
Nov. 06, 2020  Preventing Wildfires
Jul. 10, 2020  Circular Economy
Nov. 29, 2019  Climate Change and Health
Sep. 20, 2019  Extreme Weather
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Dec. 02, 2016  Arctic Development
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Jul. 18, 2014  Regulating Toxic Chemicals
Sep. 20, 2013  Future of the Arctic
Jun. 14, 2013  Climate Change
Nov. 06, 2012  Vanishing Biodiversity
Nov. 02, 2012  Managing Wildfires
Nov. 04, 2011  Managing Public Lands
Aug. 26, 2011  Gulf Coast Restoration
Jul. 2010  Plastic Pollution
Feb. 2010  Climate Change
Jan. 09, 2009  Confronting Warming
Dec. 05, 2008  Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
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Feb. 29, 2008  Buying Green
Dec. 14, 2007  Future of Recycling
Nov. 30, 2007  Disappearing Species
Feb. 2007  Curbing Climate Change
Dec. 01, 2006  The New Environmentalism
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Oct. 25, 2002  Bush and the Environment
Oct. 05, 2001  Invasive Species
Nov. 05, 1999  Saving Open Spaces
Jun. 11, 1999  Saving the Rain Forests
May 21, 1999  Setting Environmental Priorities
Mar. 19, 1999  Partisan Politics
Oct. 16, 1998  National Forests
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Aug. 23, 1996  Cleaning Up Hazardous Wastes
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Sep. 08, 1989  Free Market Environmental Protection
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Nov. 16, 1979  Closing the Environmental Decade
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Dec. 01, 1971  Global Pollution
Jul. 21, 1971  Protection of the Countryside
Jan. 06, 1971  Pollution Technology
Jun. 19, 1968  Protection of the Environment
Oct. 30, 1963  Noise Suppression
Agriculture and the Environment
Wetlands, Everglades, and Coastal Areas