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Millions of acres of NC wetlands threatened by Supreme Court ruling

Thirty acres of wetland fill the middle of the West Branch Nature Preserve.
Zachary Turner
Thirty acres of wetland fill the middle of the West Branch Nature Preserve.

As many as 3.6 million acres of wetlands in North Carolina may be vulnerable to development after a Supreme Court ruling last May, according to a preliminary analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund.

The 2023 Farm Act restricted North Carolina state wetland protections to so-called Waters of the U.S. But last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling on the issue has caused much confusion over exactly which waters are protected.

“It's just adding to the uncertainty for everybody, including developers and regulators,” said Adam Gold, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. ”It's really unclear where the line is drawn for which wetlands are protected and which ones aren't.”

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Sackett v. EPA concluded that waters must maintain “a continuous surface connection” to a river, stream, lake, or ocean to receive federal protections. However, some wetlands connect to federally-protected waters underground, with no surface connection.

“If you lose that wetland, then you're going to have worse water quality and more flooding,” said Gold.

Wetlands sponge up the extra water during heavy rains and floods, so removing protections for them could make those events worse. Gold said the language of the Supreme Court decision was so vague that their analysis projects a loss of anywhere between 14% to nearly all freshwater inland wetlands.

“The takeaway is that there's a big range because of all the uncertainty,” said Gold. “But none of the options are good.”

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.