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Recent Supreme Court Case Threatens Already Diminished Wetlands

Sara Giretto



Many environmentalists are unsettled by the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to limit the EPA’s authority to protect a particularly important ecosystem: wetlands. But what are wetlands, and what are the long-term consequences of this bombshell decision?

Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems bursting with biodiversity, and consist of two basic categories: coastal and inland. Coastal wetlands form where fresh and saltwater mix creating brackish water, whereas inland wetlands form from rainy climates or groundwater coming up to the surface. They serve as transition zones between land and water, allowing important ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, water flow, and energy flow to take place. Furthermore, wetlands provide ecosystem services to humans such as natural water quality improvement, flood protection, shoreline erosion control, and aesthetic beauty.

It is of utmost importance to protect such essential ecosystems, which different laws have attempted to do historically. The Clean Water Act in particular has been pivotal in protecting wetlands, outlining numerous rules and regulations for this purpose along with protecting other bodies of water. However, a decision made by the Supreme Court during May this year has put wetlands at great risk of disturbance, or even complete destruction.

The case of Sackett v. EPA surrounded a disagreement between Michael and Chantell Sackett and the EPA regarding the disturbance of wetlands on the couple's land in Idaho. The disagreement was taken to the Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the Sacketts, leading the court to narrowing the EPA’s authority over wetland protection through the Clean Water Act. The consequences of this decision are now being seen, with the EPA removing federal protections for a majority of the United State’s Wetlands on August 29th, 2023. This puts remaining wetlands in an incredibly vulnerable position as they can be disturbed, developed, or destroyed with fewer consequences and restrictions.

The consequences of this for the natural environment are extreme, as outlined by For Love of Water (FLOW): “Wetlands destruction has increased flood and drought damage, nutrient runoff and water pollution, and shoreline erosion, and triggered a decline in wildlife populations.” These negative impacts are not reserved only for the environment, however, as FLOW continues on to point out how “Destruction of wetlands is also detrimental to our region’s economy: recreation like fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching generate more than $22 billion annually.”

The magnitude of this impact becomes even clearer with added context of historical wetlands loss, and an idea of how many remain that will suffer from this decision. 35 percent of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015, with a loss rate that is continuing to increase. Furthermore, since 1700 the United States alone is estimated to have lost approximately 40 percent of its wetlands, covering only 5.5 percent of the land in the 48 contiguous states today. Reducing the EPA’s authority to protect these few remaining wetlands disregards the extensive scientific research proving the important role wetlands play in our environment.

With climate change becoming a more pressing issue as time goes on, threatening one of Earth’s most efficient sinks for greenhouse gasses only sets us further behind instead of improving our already dire situation. As Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, stated, this decision shows a clear “disregard of science, the law, and basic common sense to put the profits of polluters ahead of the health of our communities."


Citations

1. Gibbens, Sarah, “What Are Wetlands, and Why Are They So Critical for Life on Earth?” National Geographic, 2/24/2023, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/what-are-wetlandecosystems.

2. “Wetlands Overview.” Environmental Protection Agency, 12/2004, https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2021- 01/documents/wetlands_overview.pdf.

3. “Why are Wetlands Important?” Environmental Protection Agency, 3/22/2023, https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/why-are-wetlands-important.

4. “Summary of the Clean Water Act.” Environmental Protection Agency, 6/22/2023, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act.

5. “SACKETT ET UX. v. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ET AL.” Supreme Court of the United States, 5/25/2023, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/21-454_4g15.pdf.

6. EPA Press Office, “To Conform with Recent Supreme Court Decision, EPA and Army Amend ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.” Environmental Protection Agency, 8/29/2023, https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/conform-recentsupreme-court-decision-epa-and-army-amend-waters-united-states-rule.

7. “Wetlands Destruction.” For Love of Water, https://forloveofwater.org/issues/wetlands-destruction/.

8. Jordan, Rob, “Stanford-led Study Finds Global Wetlands Losses Overestimated Despite High Losses in Many Regions.” 2/8/2023, https://news.stanford.edu/press-releases/2023/02/08/new-chance-protectwetlands/.

9. “Wetlands.” Environmental Protection Agency, 3/29/2023, https://www.epa.gov/report-environment/wetlands.

10. Yahnke, Amy, “Wetlands & Climate Change.” Department of Ecology States of Washington, https://ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines/Wetlands/Toolsresources/Wetlands-climate-change.

11. Davenport, Coral and Friedman, Lisa, “After Supreme Court Forces Its Hand, E.P.A. Curbs Wetlands Protection.” The New York Times, 8/29/2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/29/climate/epa-wetlands-protectionrollback.html. 12. Image Source: https://www.pexels.com/.




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