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What is a wetland? High court ruling cheers farm group, discourages conservationists

The Dixon Water Fowl Refuge north of Peoria: Is it s wetland?
The Wetlands Initiative
The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge north of Peoria: Is it a wetland?

An Idaho couple's thwarted desire to build a home has led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that determines what can be considered a wetland under the Clean Water Act. That decision is applauded by the Illinois Farm Bureau and decried by conservationists.

Initially last month, the court unanimously overturned the Environmental Protection Act declaration that the Sackett property near a lake was on a wetland. Then, the court effectively ruled 5-4 in a decision affecting wetlands throughout the country, including in Illinois. It said water not connected to a lake, river, stream (known as a water of the United States) is not subject to the conditions of the federal Clean Water Act.

“We feel that the Supreme Court ruling is extremely important for our farmers and members in Illinois, because it provides clarity now,’’ said Mark Gebhards, executive director of governmental affairs and commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“It is a major decision, and not in a good way,’’ said Paul Botts, president and executive director of The Wetlands Initiative, a Chicago organization with the aim of protecting wetlands in the Midwest. He called the decisions “a nail in the coffin" of wetlands that are separated from other bodies of water.

“If it happens to have a little dune in between it and the stream, or little levee or something, it is wide open. And a landowner, and as far as federal law is concerned, can call out the bulldozers…. Lots of new acres of wetlands, obvious wetlands, it has opened them up for destruction.”

The decision settles confusion about what is defined as a wetland in current law, both groups agree.

“The Clean Water Act, originally in 1972, and again, when it was updated in 1977, really did not make it very clear at all what wetlands are included...beyond the ones that are just literally part of a river, lake or whatever it is,” Botts said.

The problem with the court’s decision, he said, is “Those wetlands are in fact connected in various ways to the river, lake, stream, but it isn't obvious...It's about, for example, the flow of groundwater. It's about the movement of biota, between different wetlands. To us, they're all connected in different ways. So to call them isolated is sort of a false way of looking at it.”

Gebhards, with the Illinois Farm Bureau, countered: “What we view is that the Clean Water Act was to give U.S. EPA enforcement over navigable waters—waters that are connected to the navigable bodies.”

“What’s next is (how) the U.S. EPA, and subsequently, the Corps of Engineers, decide to take the current rule and amend it, according to the Supreme Court's ruling," he said.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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