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US Supreme Court decision removes majority of wetland protections in the country

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Last week, the Biden administration weakened environmental protections for millions of acres of wetland across the country.

This comes after the Supreme Court’s May decision in Sackett v. EPA.

In the case, private landowners wanted to fill in wetlands.

Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered them to stop and charged them with large fines.

The Supreme Court ruled that wetlands needed to be clearly connected to other federally recognized bodies of waters to count as falling under national protection with the Clean Water Act.

Sackett v. EPA is a huge case.

For over 40 years, under eight presidential administrations, the Clean Water Act has served as the federal government’s main tool in managing water pollution.

With this decision, that precedent is undone.

Protection of wetlands now falls on the states, as opposed to the national government.

I spoke with Michael Cain, co-chair of the Wisconsin Greenfire Public Trust and Wetlands Working Group.

He has heard by some estimates as much as 80-95% of the country’s protections for wetlands and ephemeral streams, a type of body of water, have been removed.

“Even Justice Kavanaugh in the de facto decision said that the majority is removing 45 years of consistent interpretation of the Clean Water Act that was intended to cover all of these wetlands and ephemeral streams. Just with the stroke of a pen, they have eliminated 45 years of precedent under eight presidential administrations,” he said.

The impacts to Wisconsin’s wetlands won’t be as great because Wisconsin, along with Minnesota, has some backup environmental regulations under state law.

However, that doesn’t mean the change won’t influence our state.

While the full effects are not yet understood, Cain expects impacts to waterfowl and fisheries, as well as water quality.

Wisconsin water quality has already frequented headlines, especially after the Stella area tested among the highest in the country for PFAS contamination.

Wisconsin Greenfire is working with the Nature Conservancy on a more comprehensive analysis of the impacts of the Sackett decision, which Cain expects out by the end of the year.

WXPR will keep you up to date as this information becomes available.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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