US Supreme Court slashes protections for wetlands

Around half of all wetlands in the contiguous US will now lose their protections under the Clean Water Act, exposing them to pollution and development.

The US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to curb the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to manage the nation’s water. Around half of all wetlands in the 48 contiguous US states will now lose their protections under the Clean Water Act, which has shielded many sensitive habitats for the last 50 years.

Many US wetlands have now lost protections from the Clean Water Act
Hanjo Hellmann/Alamy

Environmental nonprofits have taken strong opposition to the move. “The Sackett decision undoes a half-century of progress generated by the Clean Water Act,” said Sam Sankar at Earthjustice in a statement. “More than 118 million acres of formerly protected wetlands now face an existential threat from polluters and developers.”

The decision comes after a 15-year-long legal battle by a couple in the western US state of Idaho to build a house on a wetland near one of the state’s biggest lakes. Chantell and Mike Sackett purchased a soggy lot next to Priest Lake. But after they filled in the land with sand and gravel in 2007, the EPA informed the couple that they needed a permit to build, which they had failed to obtain.

In its decision, the court stated that the Clean Water Act can only protect “wetlands with a continuous surface connection” to other water bodies. Under previous regulations “waters of the United States” was defined to include wetlands near navigable waters. Under this new definition, waterways that can be traversed by boat are still safeguarded. But other wetlands, like those that fluctuate seasonally or have low water levels, are stripped of their protection.

Though all justices agreed that the Sacketts should win, four disagreed with changing the definition of waters of the US.

These water-saturated ecosystems are precious habitats for fish, amphibians, birds, mammals and other wildlife. Wetlands also limit flooding during storms, churn out oxygen and maintain water flow during dry periods.

During oral arguments last October, Chief Justice John Roberts noted the unpredictability of controlling pollution in aquatic environments. “Water goes everywhere, eventually,” he said.

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