Change in Federal Protections for Wetlands Poses Resilience Challenge for States

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Change in Federal Protections for Wetlands Poses Resilience Challenge for States
A large cypress tree, surrounded by several smaller trees, grows in the murky water of a wetland.
A large bald cypress grows in the wetlands of Beech Street Greenway in Greenville, North Carolina. The state has been a leader in mapping how wetlands like this absorb flood and other excess water, improving resilience to climate-related disasters.
Courtesy of North Carolina Wetlands

As the frequency and severity of wildfires, floods, and droughts intensify across the U.S., scientists have long pointed to the climate resilience benefits of healthy, intact freshwater systems, including ephemeral streams and wetlands—that is, those that fill only when it precipitates.

But while some states have historically prioritized the conservation, restoration, and management of wetlands to help address extreme weather impacts, a changing federal regulatory landscape is scaling back protections for some of these systems. That shift is driven by a 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision—Sackett v. EPA—that limits the federal government’s authority under the 1972 Clean Water Act to regulate certain wetlands.

In a recent meeting of the State Resilience Planning Group, convened by The Pew Charitable Trusts, experts from the National Association of Wetland Managers (NAWM) led a discussion about the role of wetlands in reducing climate-related risk and how the Supreme Court ruling could affect state resilience initiatives.

Wetlands offer resilience benefits

Wetlands provide numerous ecological, social, and economic benefits and are an important component of nature-based resilience planning. For states facing more extreme rain and growing flood risks, wetlands can act as sponges, absorbing excess water during floods and minimizing overflow into surrounding areas; by doing so, they protect structures, businesses, and homes. In drier climates, wetlands can help stabilize moisture levels in vegetation and can act as natural barriers and firebreaks, slowing the spread of wildfires.

Beyond these risk-mitigation functions and community benefits, wetlands provide extensive ecosystem services such as habitat for diverse species, wastewater filtration, and carbon sequestration, and they support numerous industries from fisheries and tourism to outdoor recreation.

“Nearly all floodplains contain wetlands, and floodplains provide robust public health, safety, and resilience benefits,” said NAWM Executive Director Marla Stelk. “Nature-based solutions like floodplain restoration are a tool most states are putting in their toolbox.”

A number of states, including South Carolina and North Carolina, have mapped the beneficial impact that natural lands, including wetlands, can provide by absorbing floodwaters, using that data to inform land-use decisions and prioritize conservation and restoration efforts in flood-prone regions.

Changing federal protections will impact states

Donna Downing, NAWM’s senior legal policy adviser, explained that the Sackett decision means federal law can now protect only wetlands and streams with a year-round surface connection to rivers, lakes, and other navigable waters. This leaves out many streams that flow—and wetlands that form—only following rainfall. Downing noted that this view disregards the seasonal and interconnected nature of many wetland areas and could lead to degradation and loss in states that do not have their own restoration programs and regulatory protections already in place.

In the wake of the Sackett decision, conservation groups are assessing the potential impacts. Jeff Lapp, NAWM’s senior science policy adviser, shared new technical tools developed to help states identify which freshwater systems might be affected. He also discussed how resilience officials might act to support healthy watersheds and connected flood plains to benefit nearby communities.

Lapp also noted that NAWM’s analysis found that variation in state-level protections may lead to repercussions as wetlands and watershed footprints extend across state boundaries.

Even in states with wetland protections that fill gaps left by the Sackett ruling, agencies may still face challenges in reviewing proposed projects and enforcing enhanced state regulations. For example, Washington state regulates all wetlands through the Washington State Water Pollution Control Act. The narrowed federal wetland protection means that proposed development projects with a potential impact on water quality or wetlands may not receive federal scrutiny but could require state-level review. The estimated increase from state review of a few proposals per year to dozens is expected to require additional staff and could strain state resources. In anticipation, the Washington Department of Ecology has investigated putting in place a statewide dredge or fill permitting program. Additionally, differences in state policies pertaining to wetlands may lead to an inconsistent patchwork of regulations and protections across the nation.

Integrating wetland management and disaster resilience

Changing federal protections means that states may have to develop new wetland programs tailored to their specific needs, which can include prioritizing restoration activities and protections for areas that help reduce climate-related disaster impacts. States can address reduced federal protections by establishing comprehensive state wetland permitting programs, investing in restoration projects, and incentivizing private landowners to conserve wetlands. Another approach is deploying integrated watershed management, which combines clean water and hazard mitigation planning across agencies to address common vulnerabilities, efficiently use staff time, and identify solutions.

Despite changing federal protections for these critical ecosystems, state officials can work together to protect and harness wetlands’ diverse ecosystem and community benefits.

Jazmin Dagostino is an associate and Kristiane Huber is an officer working on climate resilience and nature-based climate solutions with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project.

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