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U.S. Supreme Court decision could lead to even fewer protections for Indiana wetlands

An interdunal wetland at Miller Woods in Indiana Dunes National Park, 2011.
Wikimedia Commons
An interdunal wetland at Miller Woods in Indiana Dunes National Park, 2011.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether or not certain wetlands should be considered Waters of the United States and protected by the federal government. The Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency decision could lead to even fewer wetland protections in Indiana.

It all started in 2007 when an Idaho couple — the Sackett family — filled in land to build a new home. The EPA said there were wetlands on the property and that if the Sacketts didn't return the land to its original state, they would face hefty fines.

The Sacketts said the wetlands they filled in shouldn’t be considered Waters of the U.S. because they don’t have a “continuous surface connection” to the lake nearby — basically you can’t see where one flows into the other. But the EPA said any wetland that has a significant — even if unseen — connection to a federal waterway and affects its quality would count.

READ MORE: Wetland task force says state needs funding, legislation

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Scott Strand is a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which filed a joint amicus brief in the case along with other environmental groups. He said, if the Sacketts win, that would leave a lot of wetlands unprotected — especially in states like Indiana that can’t have environmental rules stricter than federal ones.

“We know for a fact that in several states, including Indiana, the response will be if the federal government's not going to regulate them then we're not either," Strand said.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Sacketts, it’s not clear which wetlands would still be protected under Indiana’s now gutted isolated wetlands law. A state task force recently recommended Indiana have a separate state law to regulate wetlands that isn’t bound to federal rules.

“It's important for states like Indiana to rethink whether or not they really think it's in the state's interests to leave those wetlands unprotected," Strand said.

Among other things, wetlands provide habitat for endangered and threatened species, protect communities from flooding, filter out pollution and store carbon emissions.

Contact reporter Rebecca Thiele at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.