As Freshwater Wetlands Day took place in Delaware on Friday, some conservationists mourned a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to restrict federal Clean Water Act protections to some wetlands. The decision would allow building on wetlands without a permit if those bodies do not have a surface connection to a major waterway.
Experts say the decision, which ruled the Environmental Protection Agency went too far in its interpretation of the law, means more than half of wetlands in the U.S. are likely to lose federal protections against developers and polluters.
Wetlands play a crucial role buffering against storms, filtering water, and providing habitat.
Christophe Tulou, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, said Delaware relies on federal protections — state regulations only protect saltwater wetlands. Freshwater wetlands are only protected if they’re greater than 400 contiguous acres.
“Essentially, anyone who would like to fill in a wetland in order to build a home or to drain that wetland for whatever purpose now has a free right to do so,” Tulou said. “And what that portends is a huge loss of the few remaining freshwater wetland resources we have in the state of Delaware.”
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary said in a statement that it is deeply concerned about any action that may “exacerbate the continued decline and loss of these critical natural features.”
“Wetlands are vital for sustaining clean water, as well as providing many other critical benefits for fish and wildlife, erosion control, carbon capture, and flood protection,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.
“Unfortunately, all types of wetlands have been in decline in both their health and extent, ranging from interior headwater areas to the coast. Inland wetlands are especially important for protecting source water for both people and natural ecosystems and yet, they are some of the most vulnerable because laws to protect them vary widely from state to state.”
Unlike Delaware, wetlands in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are less likely to be vulnerable, said environmental attorney Steve Miano. He said definitions of wetlands in those states are more broad.
“If the area is inundated by surface or groundwater, and supports a certain type of vegetation that’s typically in wet areas, then it’s defined as being a wetland,” Miano said of Pennsylvania.
Tulou of the Center for the Inland Bays said he hopes lawmakers in Delaware will work to strengthen wetland protections in the state.
“What we have relied on as a state to protect a critical part of our natural heritage is now gone,” he said. “There is a real opportunity for people to say that is unacceptable to us and to speak up about protecting wetlands, which in the lowest lying state of the nation are an incredibly important part of our landscape.”
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