Could The Supreme Court Ruling On Wetlands Weaken U.S. Hurricane Defenses?

This week the United States Supreme Court limited how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can regulate wetlands under the auspices of the Clean Water Act. According to The Washington Post, many environmental and water experts worry that this ruling eradicates federal protection for about 50% of the wetlands in the continental U.S. My environmental lens and “justice senses” tell me that this ruling is not a good idea from those perspectives. However, I raise another potential implication that many might overlook – protecting coastal communities from hurricane damage.

First of all, let’s do a little “wetlands 101.” According to the EPA website, wetlands are, “Areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.” Generally, wetlands are designated in two ways – coastal/tidal and inland/non-tidal. The case in the Supreme Court ruling involved an Idaho lake, a wetland, and a couple’s desire to build a home. Rather than roll my eyes, I will focus herein on coastal-tidal wetlands and hurricanes.

Tidal wetlands are an important form of “engineering with nature” when it comes to protecting coastal communities. According to a 2021 study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, coastal wetlands were estimated to have a median value of $447 Billion per year in protecting coastal communities under current storm probabilities. They were also attributed with saving almost 5000 lives per year. Though human-engineered flood control is vital in coastal communities, increasingly, we are gaining understanding of the role that wetlands can play. The Associated Press wrote an excellent primer on how wetlands served as a “speed bump” as Hurricane Ida (2021) made landfall in Louisiana.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, “A report released by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963 showed that every 2.7 miles of wetlands can create a buffer against 1 foot of storm surge.” A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports found that wetlands prevented $625 Million in flood-related damages as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast. For this reason, efforts like the Network for Engineering With Nature are emerging. Nature-based solutions, including preservation and restoration of wetlands, will have to be a part of our “shock absorbing system” as current and future generations of hurricanes batter our coastlines.

As I write this piece, we are about a week away from the start of the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane season. NOAA is projecting a near-normal season in terms of activity, but it only take one bad storm. Anyone who encountered Ian (2022), Ida (2021), Michael (2018), Harvey (2017), Sandy (2012), or Katrina (2005) probably could not tell you what the seasonal projection was for that year.

Though I wrote from the perspective of hurricanes, wetlands play a much broader role in water quality and flood control. In a dissenting viewpoint, even Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “By narrowing the Act’s coverage of wetlands to only adjoining wetlands, the Court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States….”

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