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Redefining Waters of the US: a Case Study from the Edge of the Okefenokee Swamp


Defining the upslope extent of Federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction over wetlands and streams has been contentious since the passage of the Act but has large effects on the type, number, and area of wetlands that are protected by legislation. Federal jurisdictional guidance in the US has changed and evolved in response to scientific knowledge, US Supreme Court decisions, and policy goals of Presidential Administrations. In 2020, the Trump administration replaced the Obama administration Clean Water Rule with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule with the goal of reducing jurisdiction over so-called isolated depressional wetlands (wetlands with no connections to obvious stream channels) and ephemeral streams. Here we use a case study of a titanium sands mining proposal on Trail Ridge southeast of Okefenokee Swamp to illustrate the large reduction in wetland and stream protection engendered by this policy change. Under the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, all seven wetlands within the 232 ha mining area, totaling 131 ha or 56 % of the project area, were deemed non-jurisdictional and thus the project required no federal review or permitting. Under an earlier mining application under the Clean Water Rule, all of these same wetlands were declared jurisdictional. Trail Ridge is located on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, an ecological province rich in depressional wetlands and ill-defined surface drainages. This case study shows that in such environments, application of the Navigable Water Protection Rule allows destruction of large numbers and areas of ecologically significant wetlands.

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Data Availability

Most of the records used in this analysis are publicly available. Some of the permitting correspondence was obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center through the Freedom of Information Act. The corresponding author can be contacted for the GIS files used in Figs. 1 and 2 and files that can’t be found in the public record. The agency letters and memos cited in the text are included in the supplementary materials.

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The Southern Environmental Law Center assisted us with understanding the timeline of this permitting process and provided us with copies of relevant documents from the permitting process. Darold Batzer is supported by the USDA Hatch Program. This work was partly supported by the USDA McEntire-Stennis program.


This work was not supported by a specific grant, but partial support was provided by the USDA Hatch and McEntire-Stennis programs.

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CRJ, CS, LAS, and DPB together scoped this analysis, interpreted the data together, and contributed to the writing and editing. CS did the GIS work and mapping.

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Correspondence to C. Rhett Jackson.

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This article belongs to the Topical Collection: Applied Wetland Science.

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Jackson, C.R., Sytsma, C., Sutter, L.A. et al. Redefining Waters of the US: a Case Study from the Edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. Wetlands 41, 106 (2021).

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