The Sackett v. EPA court ruling puts Indiana’s wetlands at greater risk.

The Sackett v. EPA court ruling puts Indiana’s wetlands at greater risk.

If there’s anything that connects us as Hoosiers, it’s an appreciation for our state’s valuable natural resources, including clean water. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Sackett v. EPA flies in the face of scientific evidence and puts Indiana’s vital wetlands – and water quality – at much greater risk. This decision follows the Indiana Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 389 (2021) and an amendment to Senate Bill 414 (2023) that weakened state protections for wetlands.

The Supreme Court ruling sharply limits the EPA’s ability to protect wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Wetlands are already a threatened ecosystem in this country, with 50% of wetlands in the contiguous United States having been drained and converted to other uses, and remaining wetlands facing threats such as pollution. In Indiana, this number is a shocking 85%. Now only a small subset of wetlands that have a “continuous surface connection” to other bodies of water such as oceans, streams, rivers or lakes are subject to the law’s pollution restrictions. Previously, any wetland connected to navigable water in any way and at any time of the year was protected. This change removes protections for nearly half of all wetlands in the United States. In Indiana, where we only have 800,000 acres of wetlands left, only 20% of them will now be protected.

The “continuous connection to surface water” requirement is not based on the best available science on hydrology and ecology, as surface water connections are only one way to connect wetlands to the water cycle. As hydrologists, we know that no bodies of water are truly “isolated,” and we continue to discover the ways in which the health of all waterways is connected. These wetlands are apparently still connected to larger bodies of water through temporary surface water connections (such as during spring floods) or groundwater. By removing protections for these wetlands, the court has dealt a blow to all of our country’s bodies of water.

Although wetlands are small in size, they provide more than their fair share of benefits. By collecting and storing rainwater and runoff, wetlands recharge our groundwater supplies, benefiting everyone. This storage capacity also provides natural flood control, as wetlands act like a sponge to absorb water and then slowly release it over time. Wetlands – nature’s kidneys – also improve water quality by removing pollutants and harmful chemicals. Finally, they provide a habitat for many animals, including fish, amphibians and birds.

In addition to playing an essential role in the natural world, wetlands support our economy. In the United States, more than half of adults use wetlands for hunting, fishing, and bird watching. Nationally, outdoor recreation generates $887 billion annually. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, wetland recreation in Indiana generates more than $15 billion annually. These wetlands serve as a vital habitat for a variety of wildlife that nature lovers, hunters, and anglers enjoy. For example, birds that use wetlands during their migration attract birdwatchers to our area each spring. Furthermore, wetland-dependent fish make up a large portion of the recreational fishing harvest. Without wetlands, many of these recreational opportunities and the economic and social benefits they bring would be lost.

Finally, some of us may remember spending our childhood near local ponds or streams. We get to explore the natural world by hiking with friends in local wetlands. These memories follow us into adulthood and remind us of the value of the natural world that supports us. Wetlands provide value to all of us, but our children and grandchildren will inherit the consequences of our decisions now.

Under the new ruling, many of these wetlands and their recreational, environmental and community benefits may be lost. We have a duty to defend these habitats for the benefit of ourselves, our neighbors and future generations. We urge our citizens to contact their legislators to express their concern about these now unprotected wetlands. Let them know why you value the remaining wetlands in our state and nation and want to protect them.

Gary Lamberti directs the Stream and Wetland Ecology Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, where Elise Snyder earned her Ph.D. candidate and Amaryllis Addy is a Ph.D. student. Catherine O’Reilly received her Ph.D. At the University of Notre Dame. Other members of the laboratory also contributed to this view.

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