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More than half of wetlands no longer have EPA protections after Supreme Court ruling


More than half the wetlands in the U.S. no longer have federal protections under the EPA. The Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules this week to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that limited the scope of the Clean Water Act. Marla Stelk is the executive director of the National Association of Wetland Managers, and she's here to explain. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARLA STELK: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: At the most basic level, what does this new rule mean?

STELK: What this rule means is that a significant number of wetlands and headwater streams are going to be losing protection from the Environmental Protection Agency, leaving a huge burden on states and tribal governments to fill what we're calling this gap in protections for these really important wetland and water systems.

SHAPIRO: In theory, this change will make it easier for developers to build in areas that were once protected. In practice, do you expect to see that happening right away?

STELK: Absolutely. After the Trump administration enacted the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, states reported that - in some places, a doubling of the number of permit applications coming across their desks. We expect this to happen as well now that the Sackett decision has come through and the...

SHAPIRO: Sackett is the name of the Supreme Court ruling - Sackett v. EPA.

STELK: Correct. So now that the final rule has been announced, we expect to see something similar happen. And what's even a little bit more terrifying is that even fewer wetlands and headwater streams are going to receive protection now than they had under the Trump administration.

SHAPIRO: This rule change covers waters and wetlands all over the United States, but I want to ask you specifically about coastal wetlands and estuaries because they provide such an important buffer against storms like the hurricane that the Southeast is dealing with right now. What would development of those areas mean for climate resilience?

STELK: It'd be devastating. Those wetland systems and those tidal areas protect a tremendous amount of land and infrastructure from damaging winds and storm surges and waves coming in from some of these hurricanes. And as we see significant precipitation events increasing in intensity, the ability for those systems to hold back the impacts from those storms and to absorb the excess storm water is tenuous at best.

SHAPIRO: The EPA basically said, in so many words, we didn't want to do this, but our hands were tied. The Supreme Court said we had to. Do you think that's right?

STELK: I do. I do believe that 100%. We've seen the definition of the waters of the U.S. pingpong back and forth for several years now. And much of this is due to the partisan situation that we're in in D.C. When we have different administrations coming in with significantly different priorities and when we see what's going on in Congress, EPA is in reaction mode constantly. Our partners at EPA truly value clean water and healthy communities. I do feel that their hands are tied at this point. It's very unfortunate.

SHAPIRO: You're executive director of the National Association of Wetland Managers. You've obviously devoted your life and career to wetlands specifically. What makes this particular kind of ecosystem so special?

STELK: They clean water. They recharge our water supplies. They reduce flood risks. They provide fish and wildlife habitat, but they also provide recreational opportunities. If you enjoy fishing and hunting or even just going swimming in your local lake or in the ocean, those are all healthy and keep you healthy because of wetlands.

I like to always compare wetlands to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" where the father is walking around with a bottle of Windex, and he says, oh, you have acne on your face, or if you cut on your hand - whatever you have wrong with you, just let me know, and I'll spray some Windex at it. You could say that about wetlands. Oh, you're having flooding issues. You have loss of wildlife or loss of biodiversity. Oh, you need clean water. Oh, you need drought protection, wildfire protection. Here, let me spray a wetland at that, and it will help.

SHAPIRO: Marla Stelk is executive director of the National Association of Wetland Managers. Thank you so much.

STELK: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.