High Court Decision on Wetlands Protection: A Giant Leap Backwards for Environmental Science

In the sweeping world of nature, sometimes the things you can’t see are just as significant as the things you can. Consider the humble Lapwai Creek in Idaho. On the surface, it’s a picturesque waterway shaded by cottonwood trees, teeming with steelhead, sculpin, mayfly, and stonefly larvae. Yet, the true marvel is what lies beneath – the hyporheic zone. It’s a subterranean water system, a bustling microcosm of microbes that cleanse the water, and a hidden passage for aquatic insects.

The reality of our ecosystems is that they are interconnected webs, where wetlands, creeks, and underground waterways play vital roles. However, a recent Supreme Court decision, Sackett v. EPA, seems to overlook this crucial ecological fact. The ruling strips federal protections from all ephemeral streams and reportedly over half of the previously protected wetlands in the United States. It narrows the Clean Water Act protections to only “relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water.”

Ellen Wohl, a renowned river researcher, aptly sums up the predicament: “It doesn’t reflect reality or the scientific understanding of how watersheds and the river networks within them function.” Wohl had contributed to the more comprehensive Obama-era definition of which water bodies should fall under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction. The act was designed to protect “the waters of the United States,” but the precise meaning of this term has been a contentious subject for decades.

The latest ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Michael and Chantell Sackett against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2008, revolving around whether a property they owned housed protected wetlands. A unanimous decision from the justices concluded there were no protected wetlands on the site. However, a majority verdict led by Justices Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Barrett further narrowed the interpretation of the law, leaving more wetlands unprotected than any definition since 1977.

This decision may exclude many, if not all, temporary streams, including ephemeral streams that flow post-precipitation and intermittent ones that periodically dry up. These streams primarily exist in the arid West and are crucial for both ecosystems and humans. According to EPA data, they supply public water systems that more than 3 million people in Arizona’s Maricopa County rely on.

The ruling’s ambiguity now rests on the EPA’s shoulders, charged with interpreting what “relatively permanent” truly means. The majority opinion didn’t clarify ephemeral or intermittent streams, although it did mention that “temporary interruptions in the surface connection may sometimes occur because of phenomena like low tides or dry spells.”

The repercussions of this decision could be severe. Weaker protections may lead to the destruction of more wetlands and temporary streams, threatening biodiversity, flood prevention, and natural water purification.

Consider a desert playa in the Great Basin, dry for years at a time. When rain or snowmelt falls, it behaves like “a big sponge,” according to Wohl, storing and purifying water. But under the new ruling, it could easily be transformed into a lifeless parking lot, disrupting the water cycle and leading to a damaging ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.

As the youth, it is our responsibility to challenge such environmentally short-sighted decisions. We must strive for a world that acknowledges and protects the unseen yet crucial facets of our environment. Let’s remember, our waterways, wetlands, and natural resources are not just pawns in the game of law and politics – they’re the lifeblood of our planet. We need science to guide our decisions, not political maneuvering.