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How Audubon is Working to Protect Wetlands a Year After Supreme Court Gutted Protections

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On May 25, 2023, the Supreme Court drastically weakened federal Clean Water Act protections for waterways across the country. The Sackett v. EPA ruling found that smaller bodies of water—like seasonal streams or wetlands—that do not directly connect to another federally protected water body (like a larger lake or river) do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. A year later, the ramifications of the ruling are still being understood in many parts of the country, but overall, the decision resulted in drastically fewer federal protections for waterways that are critical for birds and people.

Audubon recognizes the value of wetlands not only for bird habitat, but also the important benefits they provide to communities across America. Wetlands and similar waterbodies filter pollutants out of the water system, recharge aquifers, act as storm buffers, and absorb carbon—providing resilience to climate change threats like drought, flooding, and extreme storm events. Removing federal protections for these waterways opens them up to development and destruction as they are no longer subject to federal permitting or mitigation processes.

At Audubon, we continue to work with partners and federal agencies to find solutions for this regulatory gap—this includes working at state and local levels and advocating for increased federal funding for existing programs that protect and restore wetlands. We are working across the country to shore up protections in states that now have the ability to protect—or ignore—these critical waterbodies. Here are some of the ways Audubon is leading the fight to protect wetlands:

Colorado

Audubon Rockies, along with coalition partners, was instrumental in working with state leaders to pass a bill that protects wetlands and ephemeral streams that lost federal jurisdiction after Sackett. Colorado’s legislative calendar and process allowed it to move quicker than other states, with impressive partner collaboration. In all, 2,248 Audubon network members took action to support this policy and protect the waterways in their state.

Indiana

Unfortunately, not all states took the opportunity to protect wetlands. Some chose to double down on the Sackett decision and further erode the legal protections for these smaller waterways. Audubon Great Lakes fought hard, speaking out on behalf of the 94 percent of Indiana voters who believe that state leaders should either strengthen or maintain Indiana’s current wetlands protections. Looking ahead, Audubon Great Lakes will continue working with partners throughout the state to restore protections and conserve wetland habitat wherever possible.

Illinois

Other Great Lakes states are heeding the call to protect wetlands, including Illinois. This state is close to following Colorado’s lead in enacting its own state-level protections for wetlands and waterways left vulnerable by the Supreme Court. The work is still ongoing to pass this legislation this session and Audubon Great Lakes will continue advocating for swift passage.

Wisconsin

The work to protect wetlands in Wisconsin was ongoing even before the Sackett decision. In fact, the past year has led to two amazing victories for the Badger State. Last year, Audubon Great Lakes helped secure funding in the Wisconsin state budget for a wetlands restoration project. This collaborative effort —which included the Oneida Nation, Northeastern Wisconsin Audubon, and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Cofrin Center for Biodiversity—will also help scientists understand how birds respond to wetland conservation efforts. This year, the governor signed bipartisan legislation into law creating the Pre-Disaster Flood Resilience Grant Program. This will provide funding to encourage local governments to restore and conserve wetlands and undertake other proactive strategies before flooding events occur.

New Mexico

In the Land of Enchantment, Audubon Southwest is working with partners to help improve the health and flow of rivers. This includes advocating for the development of a state-base surface water-quality permitting program that would help buffer the protection of our streams from pollution and dewatering that will result from relaxed federal standards. This critical work is all the more important as our non-profit partner, American Rivers, recently named all of New Mexico’s as the most endangered in America.

California

A bill currently in the California legislature session would codify a state policy that would result in no net loss of wetlands and would require long-term gains in the quality and quantity of wetlands. Audubon California is also supporting additional staffing and authority for the State Water Resources Control Board to regulate “waters of the state,” including isolated wetlands. And, Audubon California is co-sponsoring a bill to protect water supplies for managed wetlands. While California already has strong state protections for wetlands, this critical work will proactively ensure wetlands are providing the habitat and ecosystem needs for birds and people throughout the state.

Maryland

Audubon Mid-Atlantic had several water wins in the Maryland legislative session this year and the Clean Water Justice Act was a crucial win for wetlands. This bill restores protections for some Maryland waters that were lost in Sackett and restores the right of communities harmed by water pollution to bring a lawsuit against polluters in those waters. Audubon Mid-Atlantic was proud to support environmental justice and watershed conservation advocates working to advance this critical response to Sackett for Maryland’s waterways.

Utah

Audubon has long worked to support saline lakes and their surrounding wetlands throughout the West and our tenure at Great Salt Lake is no exception. The goal of the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program, co-led by Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, is to enhance water quantity and water quality, with at least 25% of the funding used to protect and restore wetlands habitat to benefit the hydrology of Great Salt Lake. Late last year, the Trust awarded more than $8.5 million to protect or restore wetlands for the benefit of the lake.

Florida

In Florida, Audubon has worked for over a century to protect the Everglades and its surrounding ecosystems. The work continues in Tallahassee and in Washington, DC. A recent decision to delegate federal wetland permitting authority to the state would further weaken federal protection of these wetlands. Fortunately, a federal judge has intervened to stop that delegation. Audubon Florida has also moved successfully during multiple recent legislative sessions to block proposals to roll back wetland protections enacted by local government that are stronger than state law. In Congress, Audubon is supporting provisions in the Water Resources Development Act of 2024 that would provide for wetland restoration in the Western Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.

Audubon will continue to look for and promote opportunities that protect America’s wetlands and seasonal streams for birds and people.

 

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