Close-up of a wetland with small saplings in standing water and sedges and other green vegetation reflected in the water.
Wooded wetland Wetlands can help solve some of the most pressing water problems facing us today and can be very difficult (sometimes impossible) to regain once lost. © Kate Redmond courtesy of Wisconsin Wetlands Association


States must act to protect wetlands and waterways after federal rule change

By Elizabeth Koehler

People need water to survive. A lot of us learn as children that our bodies are 60% H2O, and we know that both humans and animals rely on access to clean water and all its many benefits. From the smallest streams to the widest wetlands and the greatest lakes, water and the landscapes that hold it are our life support system.

That’s why I was distressed to see the recent elimination of the Waters of the U.S. rule (called WOTUS for short), followed by a weakened replacement. The new rules were finalized by the Environmental Protection Administration in January and published in late April. The changes have the potential to remove an enormous number of our wetlands and waterways from federal protections. I wish I could tell you the exact impacts of the modified rule, but one of the most startling and unusual things about the new guidance is that it doesn’t reference hard science and doesn’t provide a clear picture of the numbers of wetlands and waterways that will be affected.

Which is why we at The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin decided to do our own accounting and the results are staggering: according to ongoing analyses by our scientists, based on an earlier statewide wetland assessment (Wetlands By Design), as much as two-thirds or more of Wisconsin’s wetlands could be removed from federal protection.

That number is even more alarming when you consider that Wisconsin has already lost about half of the wetlands that existed prior to European settlement. Of the 6.4 million acres of wetlands that remain, less than 2 million acres would appear to continue to have federal protections under the new rule.

TNC came out against the federal rule change through the EPA’s public comment period and we continue to oppose this large-scale rollback of protections for some of our most vital natural resources. Now, however, it’s up to each individual state to step in and defend against this threat.

It’s crucial that we let science and data guide Wisconsin’s efforts to safeguard our wetlands in the absence of federal protections. This isn’t a partisan issue. People across the political spectrum can and do agree on conserving land and water, including wetlands.

Wetlands are a priority because, of all our habitats, they can help solve some of the most pressing water problems facing us today. And while nature has tremendous power to restore itself, wetlands in particular can be very difficult (sometimes impossible) to regain once lost.

Wetlands help purify sediments and nutrients from our waters, decreasing harmful algal blooms in lakes, providing cleaner habitat for fish and other wildlife, and supplying clean drinking water for people. Wetlands also help prevent flooding, which is a service that’s becoming increasingly important as our weather gets wetter. Wetlands are sites for incredible and important biodiversity, often playing host to rare species, like the Hine’s emerald dragonfly in Door County, and ecosystems, like the fens at TNC’s Pickerel Lake preserve outside Milwaukee.

Wetlands are also carbon sinks. Draining them causes carbon to be released back into the atmosphere. In an era when we’re looking for every way possible to keep carbon in the ground, protecting wetlands is a must.

Rolling back protections doesn’t make economic sense, either. According to one study, acre for acre, wetlands are worth ten times that of any other terrestrial habitat in terms of dollar-value services provided. In other words, we’d end up spending money to provide the same services that wetlands offer more effectively and for free. Those services include purifying drinking water, reducing flood impacts, and sustaining Wisconsin’s fishing industry by keeping trout streams cold and flowing.

Wisconsin first passed bipartisan legislation in the 1980s to protect our wetlands above and beyond federal rules, but the law has been significantly diminished over the years. That’s why it’s crucial for citizens to urge legislators to pass legislation and rules to ensure we protect our remaining wetlands and waterways with reasonable, science-based regulations.

We’re all in this together and we need water to survive. The revised Waters of the U.S. rule won’t help us. As a state, we must do what we can to protect the Waters of Wisconsin.

Elizabeth Koehler is the State Director of the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy.


The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.