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IL wetlands at risk in backlash from spring SCOTUS ruling

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Wednesday, November 15, 2023   

States like Illinois are dealing with the fallout of a Supreme Court decision made earlier this year.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively removed federal protections for over half of the wetlands across the country. The case, Sackett v. EPA, dealt with which waters are protected under the federal Clean Water Act. Conservation groups said in Illinois, protecting the wetlands is now up to state agencies.

Paul Botts, president and executive director of the Chicago-based Wetlands Initiative, said the problem needs a congressional fix, but it is unlikely to happen soon.

"Congress, of course, is completely melted down and dysfunctional now, and this issue just simply is not going to rise to the top and cut through the partisan divide that we have," Botts acknowledged. "The chances of the Clean Water Act being updated are just pretty close to nil."

As Botts put it, the Clean Water Act is the reason Illinois waters are no longer on fire or used as open sewers. The landowners from the original case call the ruling a "victory for property rights."

Botts contended both of the state agencies dealing with wetlands in Illinois have a poor track record. He fears many of the state's pristine waterways will return to the poor condition they were in 50 years ago.

"We have an Illinois EPA, and then of course, we have our state Department of Natural Resources," Botts outlined. "Both of those agencies are starved for staffing resources, frankly, to carry out programs and to do things like issue permits in a prompt manner so that landowners can get an answer."

For almost 30 years, the rule the high court overturned served as the underpinning of the Clean Water Act. Along with investments made in wastewater treatment, Botts noted the safeguards afforded by the law resulted in enormous benefits for people and communities. Today, he fears conservation groups will be unable to keep up with the decline of waterways.

"Audubon estimates that tens of millions of acres have been made newly open to development by the Sackett ruling," Botts stressed. "It's just an estimate; it would be years of work to try to go around and use state wetlands inventories to figure out an exact figure."


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