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Democrats eyeing new law to reestablish protections for wetlands and small streams

Wetlands are critical habitats for wildlife and serve a vital role in maintaining water quality.
Flickr Creative Commons
Wetlands are critical habitats for wildlife and serve a vital role in maintaining water quality.

News brief: 

More than 100 Democrats in Congress want to restore federal protections for wetlands and streams. Lawmakers are responding to a Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year that gutted protections for many small waterways.

Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was a closely watched decision that sided with two Idaho landowners in their fight against federal regulators. It concluded that waters only fall under the Clean Water Act if they have a continuous surface connection to major lakes and rivers. This removed protections for many wetlands, waters separated by physical barriers, groundwater connections and intermittent streams.

The “Clean Water Act of 2023” would return federal water definitions to the Regan era. In a recent committee hearing, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the Sackett v. EPA decision goes against the country’s environmental goals.

“The health of our waterways and the health of our wetlands and streams are inextricably linked,” he said. “Removing protection for wetlands is especially short-sighted as climate change continues to fuel more extreme weather events.”

Many Republicans, meanwhile, applauded the Sackett ruling and said the Biden Administration’s newly released enforcement regulations don’t conform with the decision enough.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she’s concerned that, without clearer, narrower definitions of federally protected waterways, more landowners in the Mountain West could be stuck in uncertain legal battles.

“Some of the examples pre-Sackett enforcement actions in Wyoming would, to the just naked eye of people with common sense, seem to be beyond the scope of the federal government,” she said.

The Democrats’ bill is unlikely to pass a divided Congress, but debates over federally protected waters are likely to continue for months to come.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey