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Illinois lawmakers seek to protect state wetlands

The Nature Conservancy Emiquon Preserve in central Illinois covers over 6,000 acres and provides important habitat for waterfowl and fish species.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
The Nature Conservancy Emiquon Preserve in central Illinois covers over 6,000 acres and provides important habitat for waterfowl and fish species.

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Illinois legislators are introducing bills they hope to pass this spring to protect Illinois wetlands after the U.S. Supreme Court last year stripped federal oversight from millions of acres of wetlands and streams around the country.

Illinois State Sen. Laura Ellman, D-Naperville, and State Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, sponsored companion bills to reinstate safeguard for the state’s remaining wetland resources.

“In a world where our climate continues to warm, driving increased extreme weather events, we simply can’t afford to leave some of our greatest resilient resources vulnerable and unprotected,” Ellman said.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back the scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act, leaving states that relied on the federal regulation to protect the fragile ecosystems — like Illinois — to fend for themselves.

The new bills would empower the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to require permits from wetland developers before destroying the increasingly rare ecosystem and then compensating the state for losses of environmental benefits.

Wetlands are nature’s sponge, and come in all shapes and sizes. Typically, they are landscapes saturated with water for some part of the year and include bogs, swamps, marshes and ponds. They can recharge groundwater supplies, mitigate flood risks, improve water quality and store carbon. Wetlands also provide critical habitat support for maintaining biodiversity. Nearly 40% of the state’s threatened and endangered plants and animals rely on wetlands for some part of their lifecycle.

More than 200 years ago, Illinois was home to approximately 8.2 million acres of wetlands, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Today, as much as 90% of the state’s original wetlands are gone.

Large-scale agriculture has virtually transformed the Illinois landscape and effectively replaced the state’s historical natural communities with corn and soybean fields. The majority of the state’s remaining wetland acreage is concentrated around the northeastern corner and southern tip of the state.

“With the U.S. Supreme Court eliminating Clean Water Act protections for wetlands, the state has to act now so that we do not lose any more wetlands in Illinois,” said Robert Hirschfeld, director of water policy at the Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network. The group has worked on issues of environmental conservation and justice across Illinois for over 50 years.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 survived decades of litigation from opponents seeking to limit the authority of federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to regulate the Waters of the United States, typically referred to as WOTUS. Before the wetlands decision, the Supreme Court upheld the definition of WOTUS to not only include navigable bodies of waters but also adjacent wetlands with meaningful hydrological connections.

For over a decade, Michael and Chantell Sackett, an Idaho couple, challenged this definition before the Supreme Court twice. In 2004, they bought a lakeside property with the plans to build a home on the site. The couple began excavation without applying for the appropriate permitting to develop on top of a wetland and the EPA stopped the project.

Last May, in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sacketts. The decision limited the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act to only those bodies of waters that share a “continuous surface connection” with WOTUS.

“It’s creating a lot of confusion and patchwork protections,” said Haley Gentry, a senior research fellow at the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

Before the Sacketts ruling, nearly half of the states counted on federal Clean Water Act protections. The Sackett ruling now places the charge of protecting the disappearing ecosystem squarely in state legislatures. While some states like Michigan and Wisconsin previously built out robust wetland protections and were unaffected by the ruling, environmental advocates and state legislators say Illinois still has more work to do.

“The Supreme Court ruling muddied the waters about what streams and wetlands are or are not protected,” Ellman said. “Our proposed legislation will provide certainty and clear those waters with clear long term guidance that allows businesses and developers to plan accordingly.”

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers climate change and the environment for WBEZ and Grist. Follow him on X at @__juanpab.