Tres Rios Wetlands, a vibrant and diverse ecosystem spanning over 700 acres, teeming with more than 150 species of birds and animals, now faces an uncertain future. This natural marvel, located just 15 miles west of Phoenix, has been a testament to successful habitat restoration efforts and has served as a sanctuary for migratory birds.
However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has cast a dark shadow over not only the future of Tres Rios but also millions of acres of wetlands across the nation.
In a contentious 5-4 ruling, the court dealt a severe blow to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate wetlands and waterways under the Clean Water Act. The case originated from a dispute between Michael and Chantell Sackett, who purchased property near Priest Lake in Idaho and began construction without obtaining the necessary permits for disturbing wetlands.
The court’s decision, siding with the Sacketts, undermined long-standing regulations established to uphold the Clean Water Act for over five decades. This ruling marks the second time in recent years that the court has curtailed the EPA’s power to enforce anti-pollution regulations and combat climate change, raising concerns about the trajectory of environmental policy in the United States.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, limited the EPA’s authority by narrowing the definition of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act. According to the court’s interpretation, only streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to these bodies of water would fall under the act’s jurisdiction. This means that wetlands lacking a direct connection to flowing water will no longer receive protection or monitoring against pollution or development.
The consequences of this decision reverberate far beyond Tres Rios Wetlands. Millions of acres of wetlands nationwide, which play a crucial role in maintaining water quality, preserving biodiversity, and providing habitat for endangered species, now face an uncertain fate. In Arizona, the impact remains uncertain, particularly due to the prevalence of intermittent and ephemeral rivers that do not flow consistently throughout the year.
Stephanie Stern, a professor of law at the University of Arizona specializing in climate adaptation policy and water law, highlights that the decision marks a significant shift of power from the federal to state governments. The ruling effectively removes a vast number of wetlands from the purview of the Clean Water Act, diminishing federal oversight and potentially leaving water quality and environmental protection to state regulations.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, acknowledged the potential harm caused by the decision, as it hampers the federal government’s ability to address pollution and flooding. He warned of the repercussions on water quality and flood control throughout the United States, emphasizing the detrimental effects of the court’s narrowing interpretation of protected wetlands.
The importance of wetlands within a watershed cannot be understated. Wetlands, with their unique combination of shallow water, nutrient-rich soil, and diverse plant and animal life, serve as crucial components of the ecological balance. They support the base of the food web, provide habitat for various species, including migratory birds, and even contribute to global climate moderation by storing carbon within their plant communities.
Moreover, wetlands play a vital role in flood control, acting as natural sponges that absorb and release water gradually. By preserving and restoring wetlands, communities can mitigate the severity of floods and avoid costly infrastructure interventions such as dredging and levee construction.
The Supreme Court’s ruling raises concerns about the future of environmental protection and the well-being of vital ecosystems. Critics argue that the decision, along with other recent rollbacks of environmental regulations, indicates a troubling trend of limited federal oversight and the delegation of environmental control to the states.
With the fate of Tres Rios Wetlands and countless other wetlands hanging in the balance, environmental advocates and concerned citizens grapple with the potential consequences of this controversial ruling. The loss of protection for adjacent wetlands, the increased risk of pollution, and the degradation of water quality pose significant threats to biodiversity, wildlife, and the delicate balance of our natural ecosystems.
As the dust settles and the impact of the court’s decision becomes clearer, it remains crucial to evaluate the consequences of this ruling and advocate for the preservation and restoration of our invaluable wetlands. The future of Tres Rios Wetlands and the health of our nation’s waterways depend on our collective commitment to environmental stewardship and the pursuit of sustainable practices.
Written on June 21, 2023, by Winston Farmsworth, editor for ArizonaNewTimes.com, news for the people.