The protection of wetlands was disrupted by an Idaho couple and the US Supreme Court.
Wetlands, often viewed as unappealing swamps and heavily destroyed since Europeans came to the US, have recently been recognized as crucial ecosystems. This change in perception is due to a ruling by the supreme court that has put many wetlands in danger.
Over the last 300 years, the amount of wetlands has decreased by 40% due to human activities such as draining and filling them in for various purposes, including urban development and recreational spaces. This rate of disappearance is three times faster than that of forests on a global scale.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 granted federal protection to wetlands. However, the future of these ecosystems, which cover 290 million acres (twice the size of France), is now uncertain due to the supreme court’s recent decision to limit their protection.
Conservationists are currently concerned about changes happening in states with less strict regulations for wetlands, following a recent court case. These wetland areas play a vital role in America by purifying water and serving as habitats for a diverse range of animals, including dragonflies, frogs, and waterfowl. They also serve as a natural defense against increasing floods and storms caused by the ongoing climate emergency.
John Lowenthal, a biologist at the Society of Wetland Scientists, believes that many individuals view wetlands solely as a place for mosquitoes to breed. However, he has noticed a growing awareness among the public of the various functions and benefits that wetlands offer. Lowenthal personally finds great joy in exploring new wetlands while wearing his boots.
If these areas were without the mentioned elements, there would be a decrease in wildlife habitat and seafood habitat, resulting in a decrease in seafood consumption. This would also lead to an increase in water rationing, as well as property damage along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
According to estimates, approximately 50% of remaining wetlands have lost federal protection due to a recent supreme court decision. The ruling, made by five conservative justices, stated that the Clean Water Act only pertains to bodies of water that are directly connected to rivers, lakes, or other navigable waters.
The Sackett v. EPA case, involving an Idaho couple’s desire to build a house on a section of wetland without obtaining a permit, has challenged previous beliefs about wetland conservation and has put many valuable wetlands in jeopardy. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently issued a revised set of water protection regulations, citing the supreme court’s decision as a driving factor.
John Rumpler, an attorney specializing in clean water at Environment America, expressed his dismay over the recent court decision that goes against our fundamental environmental law. He stated that the decision has already had negative impacts and we can anticipate further consequences.
According to Lowenthal, the new definition would have a significant impact on the Everglades, which is widely recognized as a prominent wetland. This is because a large part of the complex ecosystem is not directly linked to major bodies of water and is instead separated by agricultural ditches or other obstacles.
The state of Florida claims to have strong measures in place to protect wetlands, but other states lack similar abilities to guard these areas from development. A study by Earthjustice revealed that states like Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Missouri have limited wetland protections, while states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Alaska have both inadequate safeguards and a high amount of wetland acreage.
Different types of wetlands, like the “prairie pothole” wetlands found in North and South Dakota, which are shallow and isolated freshwater marshes, as well as temporary streams and wetlands that form seasonally in drier states in the southwestern US, are currently at risk due to lack of government support. Despite a recent federal effort to construct flood levees in Louisiana, environmentalists have expressed concern that 8,000 acres of wetlands will be disconnected and potentially available for development.
The Okefenokee swamp in Georgia, which is considered a valuable location and was even nominated for a Unesco world heritage site, has been affected by the current state of uncertainty. Environmental organizations have decided to withdraw their legal opposition to a proposed mine on the edge of the swamp, citing the supreme court’s ruling as making it nearly impossible to protect the area.
The US is expected to face more conflicts as it shifts its focus towards deeming wetlands as dispensable once again. Lowenthal expressed concern about this development.
“Despite the current challenges, I remind myself that we have overcome similar obstacles in the past. While the loss of wetlands continues at an alarming rate, there is a growing awareness and advocacy for their preservation. It is my hope that through collective efforts, we can urge Congress to take legislative action to address this gap.”