Wetlands in California will stay largely protected despite a ruling Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court that limited the authority of federal regulators.
The justices ordered that Clean Water Act safeguards only apply to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection” to bodies of water, a narrowed definition that followed years of legal disputes.
While the decision reduces the federal government’s reach, California has its own rules for the ecosystems within the state. And they aren’t changed by the court action, said E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair 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 statewide definition of a wetland that was broader than the federal government’s. It included desert playas, 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 federal rules were narrowed “by administrative actions or the courts.” The Clean Water Act allows states to have stronger laws.
“In many ways California is in a better position than other states in the west,” Jennifer Harder, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, said after the ruling.
Wetlands are a crucial habitat for plants and animals. Vegetation found in them helps reduce the effects of flooding, by trapping and slowly releasing water. It’s possible, if not likely, that the ecosystems, especially in western states, will be dredged, filled and farmed as a result of the decision. Many are only seasonal.
State agencies, including in California, could also have greater workloads to fill in what was previously done by the federal government.
“This does have a real impact on communities nationwide,” Esquivel said.
California has already lost about 90% percent of its wetlands, largely due to draining for agricultural reasons. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state’s largest remaining wetland region, is a major resource for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.
“This Supreme Court ruling weakens our federal standards for clean water, threatening our ability to protect ecosystems and landscapes needed for birds and communities across the country,” Julie Hill-Gabriel, the National Audubon Society’s vice president for water conservation, said in a statement.
In the court’s order Thursday, Justice Samuel Alito and four colleagues warned about different consequences. If they didn’t limit federal authority, they said, it would leave “a staggering array of landowners” at risk of penalties or criminal prosecution.
Conflict over environmental protections of wetlands and property rights were at the heart of a case involving John Duarte, a Central Valley farmer. Duarte was accused of violating the Clean Water Act by “ripping” land, that included protected wetlands, without a permit. He eventually settled the case in 2017 and agreed to pay a $1.1 million fine. But not before it was held up by some as an example of government overreach.
Last year, Duarte was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In a statement Thursday, he commended the court for its decision. Adding, the ruling protects people from “unfair government rules on water, helping working families, farmers, and small businesses thrive.”