Wetlands in California will remain largely protected despite a US Supreme Court ruling Thursday that limited the authority of federal regulators.
The judges ordered that the Clean Water Act’s safeguards only apply to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection” to bodies of water, a narrow definition that followed years of legal disputes.
While the decision reduces the scope of the federal government, California has its own rules for ecosystems within the state. And they are not modified by legal action, said E. Joaquín Esquivel, president of the State Water Resources Control Board.
“We saw these challenges coming and we were able to adapt,” Esquivel said in an interview.
In 2019, the State Water Board came up with a state definition of a wetland that was broader than the federal government’s. It included desert beaches, for example, which are areas free of vegetation where lakes form during wet periods.
At the time, the board said it wanted the protections to continue even if the federal rules were narrowed “by administrative or judicial action.” The Clean Water Act allows states to have stricter laws.
“In many ways, California is in a better position than other western states,” Jennifer Harder, a professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, said after the ruling.
Wetlands are a crucial habitat for plants and animals. The vegetation found in them helps to reduce the effects of flooding, by trapping and slowly releasing water. It is possible, if not likely, that ecosystems, especially in the western states, will be dredged, filled in, and farmed as a result of the decision. Many are just seasonal.
State agencies, including in California, could also have increased workloads to complete what the federal government used to do.
“This has a real impact on communities across the country,” Esquivel said.
California has already lost about 90% percent of its wetlands, largely due to drainage for agricultural reasons. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest remaining wetland region in the state, is an important resource for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.
“This Supreme Court ruling weakens our federal standards for clean water, threatening our ability to protect the ecosystems and landscapes needed by birds and communities across the country,” Julie Hill-Gabriel, vice president of the United States, said in a statement. Water Conservation from the National Audubon Society. .
In Thursday’s court order, Judge Samuel Alito and four colleagues warned of different consequences. If they did not limit federal authority, they said, it would leave “a staggering array of landowners” at risk of penalties or criminal prosecution.
Conflict over environmental protections for wetlands and property rights were at the center of a case involving John Duarte, a Central Valley farmer. Duarte was accused of violating the Clean Water Law by “ripping up” land, which included protected wetlands, without permission. He finally settled the case in 2017, agreeing to pay a $1.1 million fine. But not before some held it up as an example of government overreach.
Last year, Duarte was elected to the United States House of Representatives. In a statement on Thursday, he praised the court for his decision. Additionally, the ruling protects people from “unfair government rules on water, helping working families, farmers, and small businesses prosper.”