The U.S. Supreme Court has gutted federal protections for much of the country's wetlands.
The court found that the Waters of the United States rule, part of the Clean Water Act, only applies to wetlands with a surface connection to a navigable body of water. Conservation groups have said that puts up to 80% of U.S. wetlands at risk for pollution and development, with ephemeral streams and headwaters in western states at particular risk.
Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, predicted the ruling will have widespread negative consequences.
"This is going to put major setbacks on our ability to adapt to climate change, respond to extreme weather events," he said. "So, anyone that hunts, fishes, or recreates - there was a big hit to that from the court."
The case was brought by a family in Idaho that was prevented from building on their land. The court unanimously decided that the EPA rule did not apply to their property, but then went much further, narrowing the authority of the agency nationwide.
Supporters cheered the ruling, saying the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule went too far and had been a burden to property owners.
Funk said pristine wetlands are the superstars of the natural infrastructure.
"Everything from mitigating downstream flooding impacts by absorbing runoff and precipitation to encouraging groundwater recharge, to improving water quality and capturing sediment, and other pollutants that might end up in drinking-water supplies," he said, "and, of course, the fish and wildlife impacts."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that "California has adopted some of the strongest laws in this country to protect our waters and the environment, and we will continue enforcing our own laws vigorously."
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Disclosure: Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Environmental advocates say the U.S. Supreme Court has dealt a major blow to the Clean Water Act and to Maine's ability to protect some of its most pristine wetlands.
A 5-4 decision in Sackett v. EPA held wetlands can only be regulated under the Clean Water Act if they have a "continuous surface connection" to larger, regulated bodies of water.
Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the ruling eliminates federal protections for nearly all wetlands in the country.
"Anyone that hunts, fishes, recreates or uses water, there was a big hit to that today from the court," Funk asserted.
The high court ruled in favor of an Idaho couple who had been prevented from building a home near a lake federal officials identified as also containing wetland property and required a special permit. About one-fourth of Maine's land area is wetlands, which is four times the wetland area of the other five New England states combined.
Maine's coastal waters, rivers and lakes all depend on wetlands to filter out pollutants. Wetlands also serve as vital habitat for wildlife and flood protection for communities.
John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment Maine, called today's ruling a devastating blow to protecting the state's waterways, and a misguided interpretation of the Clean Water Act.
"If a vast number of acres of remaining wetlands in Maine are no longer protected by our federal Clean Water Act, then there's a risk that polluters and developers will run amok and put our water at risk," Rumpler contended.
Rumpler stressed it is now up to state agencies and lawmakers in Augusta to ensure all of Maine's waterways, especially its wetlands, are protected by state law. He argued Congress will eventually need to create greater federal protections for the nation's vital water resources.
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Disclosure: The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species and Wildlife, Environment, and Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
From protecting and studying waterways to addressing chronic wasting disease, conservation voices say there are a lot of important items in Minnesota's environmental and energy spending bill. Supporters say it brings sharper focus to many long-standing requests.
With Democrats holding majorities, the Legislature approved a nearly $2 billion omnibus bill to cover environmental, climate and energy priorities.
Jeff Forester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, said investments like improving boat ramps will help stop the spread of aquatic invasive species.
"Where does it get into the lakes? It gets into the lakes at the boat ramps as equipment and watercraft are moved from one lake to another," Forester explained. "So making those investments in the boat ramps in signage and places to pull over, it really is an integrated package."
He also applauded provisions to rein in harmful PFAS chemicals and their connection to waterways and fish. Another item bans new deer farms in hopes of limiting the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Some fee hikes will be used to help cover the new spending, including higher boat registration fees. Republican lawmakers voiced opposition to those aspects of the plan.
Forester credits lawmakers for addressing many long-standing issues, while also looking ahead so agencies and conservation groups are not blindsided by other climate threats down the road. He added part of the forward thinking is a 50-year water study included in the bill.
"Given current conditions, what can we expect the quality and the quantity of water to be in Minnesota in 50 years? What's it going to look like?" Forester asked. "That's such a simple question, but it hasn't been studied yet."
The bill also wove in the issue of environmental justice, by adding regulations taking into account the cumulative effect of a development project might pose health risks to historically marginalized communities. However, the provision was watered down from the original proposal introduced earlier this session.
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By Caleigh Wells for KCRW.
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for California News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
Hours after another storm soaked Southern California, LA County’s principal stormwater engineer Sterling Klippel stands at the base of the San Gabriel Dam, looking like a kid in a candy store. He gazes in awe at the thousands of gallons of stormwater rushing through this dam every second.
“Just this October, this facility was completely drained,” he says.
This dam is almost 300 feet deep in the middle, and it went from empty to full in less than six months. And it’s just one of more than a dozen dams in the county.
Soggy Southern California has gotten more than two feet of rain this season – so far, about double an average year, making it one of the top 10 wettest years on record.
“It's amazing to see it when it's here, and every drop is precious. So we do our best to capture every drop of it,” says Klippel.
Los Angeles County is on track to capture enough stormwater this year to quench the year-round water needs of more than a quarter of the county’s residents. It’s good news, but there is still a lot of work to do to meet local water use goals.
'A good job of for the infrastructure we have'
“We're making strides, and we just need to make sure that we don't let our foot off the gas,” says Bruce Reznik. He leads the nonprofit LA Waterkeeper, which is the city’s self-proclaimed water watchdog. “We have done a good job, for the infrastructure we have.”
That’s thanks to nearly century-old infrastructure that’s still working.
Trickling waterfalls in the San Gabriel Mountains typically drain into giant dams like the San Gabriel Dam, which was built in the 1930s. When they get full, public works officials open the floodgates at the bottom of the dams to send the water downstream.
“From there, we release it and we send it down to our spreading grounds, which are these large basins,” says Klippel. “The water then will percolate through this kind of sandy gravelly geology here and recharge these local aquifers where later it's pumped out for local municipal water use.”
'A century worth of poor planning'
Klippel says LA County gets about a third of its water from those aquifers while the rest is imported either from Northern California or from the Colorado River.
But the City of LA’s goal is to flip that equation by 2035, using two-thirds local water and cutting Southern California's dependence on imported water. Reznik says the local infrastructure is just not set up for that yet.
“A lot of that is because … so much of LA is channelized and concretized and urbanized, that we're not letting Mother Nature do its job of capturing the stormwater, letting it recharge our groundwater,” he says. “We are trying to undo a century worth of poor planning around water, and it's going to take us a while.”
LA is so developed and has such high flood risk that for decades the county has focused on funneling water as quickly and safely as possible straight to the ocean.
In big storms like we’ve seen this winter, that’s happening no matter how hard Klippel tries to stop it. “With so much water in the system at this point, there is some water that's still making its way to the ocean.”
Infrastructure woes can get solved with big investments, but Californians decided years ago that two-thirds of voters need to approve new taxes for stormwater capture. That’s an extremely high bar.
“Unfortunately, it's actually very hard to fund stormwater projects,” says Resnik. “There has been a decade's long lack of funding for stormwater infrastructure.”
Which is why people like Reznik were so thrilled when county voters passed Measure W five years ago that devotes $280 million each year to water projects.
But as the climate crisis worsens, more money has to go toward maintaining current infrastructure. For example, wildfire burn scars result in more loose soil falling into the dams and leaving less space for water.
Officials anticipate it’ll take several billion dollars to hit that 2035 goal to use mostly local water.
“Which seems pretty ambitious to me,” says USC Assistant Professor of civil and environmental engineering Dan McCurry. He says stormwater capture is actually one of the best tools we’ve got for cutting down our reliance on imported water.
“We're not talking about complicated, energy-intensive, expensive engineering treatment processes like we have to do for wastewater reuse. So in some sense, stormwater capture – when it's available – is low-hanging fruit.”
Caleigh Wells wrote this article for KCRW.
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