Editorial: Protecting vital US wetlands must remain a federal priority

Tribune Content Agency

Back in the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed an enormous functioning hydraulic model of the Chesapeake Bay. Although long ago replaced by much more accurate computer simulations, there was one extremely valuable lesson passed along to the busloads of schoolchildren who would visit the 14.5-acre indoor facility on Kent Island: How shallow it all was. Sure, the deepest part of the bay (in real life, a 174-feet “hole” near Bloody Point not far from Annapolis; in the scale model, 21 inches deep) was impressive, but most of the display would hardly raise a splash if you stomped on it. And so youngsters could see firsthand how the nation’s largest estuary was all about the streams, creeks, marshes, wooded bogs and wetlands.

The miracle of the Chesapeake Bay lies not in its depths, but in the complexity of its natural construction, the interaction of fresh and saline waters moved by wind, tide and current; the mix of land and water where spots are sometimes dry, sometimes wet. The shallows provide homes for hundreds of species from birds and fish to mammals and worms while storing floodwaters, filtering pollutants from water, and protecting nearby communities from potentially destructive storm surges.

All this was put at great risk late last month, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in an Idaho case that provides the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency far less authority to regulate wetlands and waterways. Specifically, a 5-4 conservative majority decided that wetlands protected by the EPA under its Clean Water Act authority must have a “continuous surface connection” to bodies of water. This narrowing of the regulatory scope (after more than a half-century of differing interpretation of “navigable waters” under Republican and Democratic administrations alike) was a victory for builders, mining operators and other commercial interests often at odds with environmental rules. And it carries “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States,” as even Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh observed.

In Maryland, the good news is that there are many state laws in place that provide wetlands protections. But that’s a very shortsighted view, particularly when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay. The reality is that water, and the pollutants that so often come with it, don’t respect state boundaries. The Chesapeake draws from a 64,000-square-mile watershed that extends into Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and Delaware. Will those jurisdictions extend the same protections now denied under Sackett v. EPA? Perhaps some, but all? That seems unlikely. And so we would call on President Joe Biden and Congress to restore this much-needed EPA authority under the Clean Water Act and protect the nation’s wetlands — and with them the safety of our water supply, aquatic species and recreational spaces as well as flood protections.

It is too easy, and misleading, to see such court rulings as merely standing up for the rights of land owners when the consequences can be so dire for their neighbors. And it’s a reminder that the EPA’s involvement in the Chesapeake Bay Program has long been crucial as the means to transcend the influence of deep-pocketed special interests in neighboring states. Pennsylvania farmers, to use one telling example, aren’t thinking about next year’s blue crab, oyster or rockfish harvest in Maryland when they decide whether to spread animal waste on their Lackawanna County fields, yet the runoff into nearby creeks can have enormous impact downstream.

And so we would also call on state lawmakers from Richmond to Albany to consider reviewing their own wetlands protections and see for themselves the enormous stakes involved. We can’t offer them a trip to the Chesapeake Bay model. It’s been gone since the 1980s but perhaps a visit to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County where American bald eagles fly over tidal marshes so shallow you could not paddle a boat across them but teaming with aquatic life. It’s worth the scenic drive.