WASHINGTON -- Going one better than President Bush's "no net loss" of wetlands pledge, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences says America needs "an accelerated national effort" to repair lakes, marshes, streams and swamps that already are polluted or otherwise damaged.
The committee urged the federal government to establish a long-term strategy for restoring the nation's aquatic ecosystems and suggested that Congress create a "national aquatic restoration trust fund" to finance it.
However, in a report entitled, "Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems: Science, Technology and Public Policy," the panel avoided estimating how much a national restoration effort would cost.
"We can repair damaged ecosystems to a close approximation of the condition they were in before they were disturbed, even with present knowledge," said John Cairns Jr., of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and chairman of the committee.
Nearly 120 million acres of wetlands, more than 400,000 miles of river and 4.3 million acres of lakes have been lost or degraded, the committee said. Swamps have been cleared for urban growth, streams made into channels to make room for agriculture and lakes turned into "sinks" for pollutants.
But there is no need to drastically affect either agriculture or urban development by restoring the wetlands, the committee said.
"There are so many other areas that could benefit from restoration that wouldn't affect agriculture or urban areas that we'll be well into the next century before we finish those," said Cairns.
The 485-page report was released as the Bush administration moves closer to adopting controversial new regulations, which critics contend will remove millions of acres of wetlands from federal protection.
Preparing to propose the new guidelines formally, the administration earlier this year issued an updated manual for use in determining the boundaries of wetlands.
When its criteria were applied at 500 test sites nationwide, they were heatedly denounced as unworkable and unscientific by experts from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Soil Conservation Service.
Although the White House at first prohibited release of the experts' analyses, the Corps of Engineers is preparing to make public approximately 1,500 pages of the reports in Washington. Additional data gathered by the scientists will be available at the Corps' regional offices.