What Illinois can do since Supreme Court gutted federal protection of wetlands, waterways

The Supreme Court last week restricted the EPA’s ability to protect America’s waterways and wetlands. Illinois can’t afford to sit back and do nothing to protect both in our state, the head of the Illinois Environmental Council writes.

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Supporters of the Clean Water Act demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2022. The court on May 25 made it harder for the federal government to police water pollution in a decision that strips protections from wetlands that are isolated from larger bodies of water.

Supporters of the Clean Water Act demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2022. The court on May 25 made it harder for the federal government to police water pollution in a decision that strips protections from wetlands that are isolated from larger bodies of water.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Legislature must act immediately to protect wetlands following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling rolling back decades of protection for clean water, habitats, and public health.

In 2019, the Trump administration dealt a critical blow to conservation efforts across the country by redefining “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) within the Clean Waters Act, effectively cutting EPA’s jurisdiction to regulate a substantial amount of waterways and over half the nation’s wetlands. This move was recognized as a piece of the administration’s larger attack on preexisting policies, including much-needed environmental protections.

In the following years, the Biden administration would take over and eventually redefine and expand WOTUS, restoring federal protections to many waterways and wetlands nationwide.

But last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to essentially bring back the Trump-era WOTUS definition, and additionally gut the Clean Waters Act even further by removing protections that go back to the Reagan administration. Current law requires that projects that demolish wetlands mitigate the impacts with habitat restoration, drainage solutions, or other important ecosystem services.

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You may not immediately see the impacts, but they will soon be felt by all of us. Stormwater displaced by the loss of wetlands that would normally absorb excess water must go somewhere. Certainly, some will find a way into our streets, homes, and businesses.

Wetlands are an invaluable natural resource. They reduce flooding, filter out pollutants from water, provide habitat for a host of endangered species, and help reduce climate-warming carbon in our atmosphere. In Illinois, more than 85% of our wetlands have already been lost to development, according to the Illinois State Water Plan. Remaining wetlands are already suffering decreased biodiversity and an influx of difficult-to-control invasive species.

Without a state law on the books offering similar protections, Illinois wetlands are left vulnerable. Moreover, the language of the court’s decision itself creates additional confusion as to exactly which wetlands still qualify for protections, potentially opening the door for even more environmental destruction.

This will allow wetlands to be bulldozed with catastrophic consequences, including contaminated drinking water, an increase in property damage from flooding, lost habitat for endangered species, and increased climate emissions.

Working-class communities that are already over-burdened with environmental problems will be hardest hit. Many of these communities already struggle to properly maintain and fund water treatment and sewage systems. The further removal of wetlands will increase water treatment costs — or worse, lead to unsafe drinking water — and increase the burden on the system from flooding.

The cost of doing nothing: ‘astronomical’

Illinois already suffers greatly from its lack of conservation and nature-based climate solutions. In March, the environmental movement mourned a great loss when, after thousands of letters had been sent and environmentalists from every corner of the state spoke out in opposition, the historic Bell Bowl Prairie was demolished to make way for expansion of the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Bell Bowl was one of the very few remaining native prairies in Illinois and home to a range of endangered species, including the rusty patched bumblebee.

With Illinois’ state budget woes, some critics will claim that we can’t afford to address this issue, but the costs of doing nothing will be astronomical. Property damage from severe weather events will increase. Treating increasingly polluted water will cost the state big-time, particularly in cleaning up the state’s number one water quality issue: nutrient pollution, the process by which too many chemical nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, leach into bodies of water and can act like fertilizer and cause excessive growth of algae.

Illinois must act quickly to claim statewide authority to protect isolated wetlands and mitigate impacts to them. The federal government can help by resourcing state governments to regulate and protect wetlands.

The governor should consider executive orders that can protect as many Illinois wetlands as possible; the Illinois Department of Natural Resources should introduce protective rules and chase down any funding source possible; and finally, the Illinois Legislature, as soon as possible, should pass legislation that maintains the former federal level of wetlands protection.

Pritzker is a leader on climate solutions. By protecting wetlands, Illinois has an opportunity to wisely expand our approach to confronting the climate crisis by embracing nature-based climate solutions.

Jennifer Walling is executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

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