Some waterfront developers are likely celebrating the news that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formalized a rollback of federal wetlands protections this week. A majority of the United States’ wetlands now stand unprotected, with states readying to take over regulation. But why would the Biden administration authorize such a restriction of federal power?
The story takes us back to 2007, when Michael and Chantell Sackett sued the EPA, saying that they shouldn’t have to obtain federal permits to fill wetlands on their Priest Lake, Idaho, property with materials like gravel and cement. The Idaho couple’s case made its way up to the Supreme Court, and all nine justices sided with them in May — but disagreed, 5-4, over how regulations should work.
The majority of conservative justices decided to grant states regulatory power, and determined new guidance for what waters fall under federal protections. Now, any wetlands that don’t have a “continuous surface connection” to “navigable” waterways like rivers or oceans fall outside federal jurisdiction.
Conservationists and other groups working to mitigate the climate crisis decried the decision, warning of disastrous effects if the slow but steady legal erosion of the Clean Water Act continues. One group, the Natural Resource Defense Council, called it “the most important water-related Supreme Court decision in a generation.”
“Unfortunately, a majority of the justices used the case as a tool for dramatically weakening the Clean Water Act — by deciding for themselves, without any scientific support whatsoever, what wetlands deserve protection from pollution and destruction,” wrote the NRDC.
While the decision was a boon for developers who want to cash in on prime waterfront real estate, a recent move in North Carolina could forecast implications for other states. Lawmakers there chose not to implement any protections beyond the newly limited Clean Water Act, and in doing so opened more than half of the coastal state’s wetlands to development — land increasingly battered by hurricanes and flooding.
Idaho’s congressional delegation lauded the Supreme Court decision, and the state has yet to announce how it plans to step into its new regulatory powers.
As a desert state, the vast majority of Idaho’s wetlands fall along the boundaries of rivers and lakes, and change seasonally. But according to Idaho Fish and Game, Idaho’s low acreage of wetlands makes them that much more important.For example, half of our bird species rely on wetland habitats, and half of our rare and at-risk plants and animals rely on them. And because our freshwater is so limited, over 75% of all animals rely on wetlands at some stage in their life.