The Scoop on the Future of America’s Wetlands


A staffer with the environmental public interest law firm, Earthjustice, has seen a draft of the Supreme Court’s latest guidance on wetlands development and tells me “it will be confusing as hell.” That’s probably bad news for some 20 million acres of the nation’s wetlands–20 percent of the total–which in 2003 were opened to development by the Bush Administration. The court’s guidance might lead to more protections, but it could very likely open the floodgates even wider to developers. This is what we know:

One group of four judges led by Justice Antonin Scalia wants to protect–and I’m quoting Earthjustice’s paraphrase here–“continuously flowing waterways and waters with a continuously flowing connection to navigable waters.” That could rule out some 60 percent of America’s wetlands, Earthjustice estimates. The other judges, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, are proposing a “significant nexus test,” which would be broader, and would require that protected wetlands be connected to navigable waters in some way that might be chemical, physical or biological. But he hasn’t specified how the nexus would be measured, which might leave the Bush EPA with a lot of leeway.

What all of this means, in short, is that saving America’s wetlands will probably fall to Congress, where next month Democrats plan to introduce a bill called the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, which languished last year under the Republicans. It would restore wetland protections to the way they were before a 2001 Supreme Court gave Bush’s Army Corps of Engineers an excuse to dramatically scale back protections. The question, of course, is whether Bush will veto it.

Back in 2003, you might recall, Bush planned to gut wetland protections in the Clean Water Act, but pulled back after meeting with the NRA, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Since then, the alliance between hunters and greens has only strengthened as sportsmen have seen their stomping grounds ravaged by oil drilling in the mountain west. So in my view a Bush veto is somewhat unlikely. Look at it this way: it pays to have people with guns on your side.

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