Justices ring death knell for isolated US wetlands

By Judith Helgen
A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court strips away protections from our nation’s remaining treasure of isolated wetlands. The court has reverted to the dark days when wetlands were viewed as dirty swamps to be drained — habitats with no value.

There’s a convoluted legislative and regulatory history which gave the U.S. Army Corps authority to oversee the nation’s navigable waters. The Corps protects waters that have a significant nexus, or connection, to a navigable water like a river. On that basis, the court removed isolated wetlands as Waters of the United States. Yet scientists have documented that most waters — including isolated wetlands — are connected, even when they don’t have an obvious nexus.

As a result, the justices have rung a death knell for these unique, watery environments.

Permanent and semi-permanent wetlands support an amazing diversity of underwater life: mayflies, dragonflies, small algae-eating crustaceans, and other quietly beneficial species. Isolated wetlands also provide physical services, such as holding water on the landscape and settling silt and pollutants.

Biologists like me who care about our watery environments are in shock.

Nationwide, less than half the country’s original 220 million acres of wetlands remain after vast areas were drained, primarily to create farmland. Farmers had no malicious intent; their crops are a major contributor to the Midwest economy. Minnesota has already lost half of its 20 million acres of wetlands because of drainage to create farmland.

Shouldn’t we protect those that remain?