Wetlands have all kinds of benefits for people and wildlife. But wetlands have also gotten in the way of farming and building. So, we’ve drained them over the years.
The federal government has been trying to clarify what kinds of wetlands and small streams fall under the Clean Water Act.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a new rule that they say would clear up confusion.
Annie Snider is a reporter who covers water issues for Greenwire in Washington, D.C. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and Snider says the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers took a broad approach to what fell under it.
"But in 2001, and then again in 2006, there were [Supreme] Court challenges that threw that into question. And after those, the questions of which waters, which streams, which creeks, which wetlands fall under federal power under the Clean Water Act was thrown into question," says Snider.
The 2006 ruling involved two cases out of Michigan. While one contested the rejection of a permit, in the other, the U.S. sued a Midland real estate developer for filling in a wetland property. The developer said the wetland was not a "navigable waterway" and therefore not covered by the CWA. However, until that point, the EPA interpreted "navigable waters" as being "waters of the U.S." and any waters or wetlands connected to one of these waterways. In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA's limitless authority over water.
After that decision, Snider says that regulators had to make case-by-case decisions about which streams and creeks are important to the downstream waters — the big rivers and lakes that do fall under the Clean Water Act.