Earth Matters: What the Supreme Court didn’t know about wetlands

Earth Matters: What the Supreme Court didn’t know about wetlands
Wetlands at the Hempstead Harbor Shoreline Park. (Photo by Hildur Palsdottir)

By Hildur Palsdottir

Across the world, wetlands are threatened by human activity, overdevelopment, pollution and rising sea levels. More than half of U.S. wetlands have already been drained for farmland or converted to other uses by fill material for development.

Despite this continued degradation of wetlands, the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in favor of private landowners in the case of landfilling a body of water. The  Sackett v. EPA decision sets a dangerous precedent as it clearly undermines the 1972 Clean Water Act and the EPA’s ability to protect the water cycle.

What’s perhaps most confusing about this ruling is that our highest judges came to the conclusion that a distinct body of water can be separated from the water cycle as a whole. This is concerning for many reasons, but maybe most critically as an example of the highest court failing elementary science. We teach the water cycle as early as elementary school, and it’s a fact that water can’t be separated from the continuous circulation by means of evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation and runoff.

But our highest court has decided we can separate a vernal pool from its environment. This leaves critically endangered salamanders unprotected from habitat destruction. Up to 40% of all species rely on wetlands to live and breed. Biodiversity and climate are interconnected and already in crisis. We must do what we can to repair and restore health to ecosystems. Habitat restoration is equally important to lowering carbon emissions to curb a climate catastrophe. Wetlands sequester carbon and clean both the air and water as well as detoxify contaminants.

Senior Vice President of Programs Sam Sankar of the non-profit Earthjustice warns: “More than 118 million acres of formerly protected wetlands now face an existential threat from polluters and developers.” President Biden said of the ruling: “It puts our nation’s wetlands – and the rivers, streams, lakes and ponds connected to them – at risk of pollution and destruction, jeopardizing the sources of clean water that millions of American families, farmers and businesses rely on.”

Water is truly ancient and filtered through sediments, bodies and time. The primordial seas were the cradle for life on Earth. Dinosaurs drank the same water we hydrate with today. There has been no new shipment of water to planet Earth. But today’s water quality is very different from the water of pre-colonial times; it is tainted by human-made chemical contaminants and sewage.

Our groundwater tells a story of harmful human activity, habitat destruction and industrial pollution. The multiple emerging contaminants in our drinking water clearly document human-made pollutants. Significant cost is associated with purifying it.

This Supreme Court Ruling is a clarion call for local rewilding. When federal or local laws don’t make environmental sense, it’s up to the citizens to insist on the behavioral and cultural change needed for the next right action. And many Long Islanders are already doing their part to protect water. Grassroots Environmental Education leads the charge with initiatives such as “I love Long Island” aimed at getting rid of chemical lawns. Rewild Long Island supports the recreation of wildlife habitats with perennial native plants and shrubs.

Deep-rooted native perennial plants and thoughtful reforestation help with soil porosity, water retention and recharge of the aquifers. Natives are superior to monocultures of shallow rooted, non-native turf grass in binding the soil and fighting erosion. Importantly, natives help with uptake of excess nutrients, particle retention and detoxify runoff while sustaining wildlife.

The Town of North Hempstead encourages citizens to replace the lawn with pollinator friendly habitats. With funding from the Nassau County Soil and Water Conservation District TONH now offers residents up to a $350 rebate for the purchase of native plants for their landscape. Find out more here:

The Supreme Court’s undermining of the regulatory body that aims to protect clean water completely contradicts the urgency of responding appropriately to climate change. We must therefore do what we can to protect our water. We must insist on climate solutions: stop applying chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to lawns, make sure you’re properly sewered. Join local ecosystem restoration projects.

Locate your nearest body of water and discover stewardship opportunities. If it isn’t protected, organize to defend and conserve it. Recent citizen efforts aim to save Leeds Pond from habitat destruction. You can find out more at

At the Science Museum of Long Island two acres have been reforested with native trees after removing kudzu and other harmful invasives. The founder of Spadefoot Design and Construction, Frank Piccininni, who leads this ecosystem restoration, said: “Given this (the Supreme Court ruling), our best shot at holding the line on LI’s waters is to focus on local decision-makers…Take note of your local wetlands and be mindful of land use applications that may impact them. Show up at hearings and advocate for saving our few remaining wetlands…Incredible progress can be made if you give nature a helping hand through careful stewardship.”

If you’re the hands-on type, you can join the adopt-a-trail program facilitated by Transition Town Port Washington or if you are not the outdoors type but would like to help, you can donate directly to ecosystem restoration here Let’s make it normal to give back to nature.

Other significant conservation efforts include: North Shore Land Alliance, The North Shore Audubon Society,  The Long Island Conservancy and Long Island Native Plant Initiative, which are actively helping people transform toxic ownership of land into nurturing stewardship of ecosystems.

Nationwide, Douglas Tallamy, the author of  Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, invites us to join the Homegrown National Park® movement. Do your part, repair the ecosystem, cure your chemical dependency, get rid of your “perfect lawn” and replace it with living land that will support future generations.


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