How will the Supreme Court’s decision to relax wetlands regulations affect Whatcom?

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that loosened wetlands regulations at the federal level is not expected to have a major impact on Whatcom County.

There are wetlands in Washington state, and there are lots of them, from coastal bays, rivers and lakes, said John Rybczyk, a professor of marine and coastal sciences at Western Washington University.

“Almost every type of discrete wetland you could have, we have here in Whatcom County,” Rybczyk told the Bellingham Herald.

Wetlands support a variety of organisms, including birds, fish and wildlife.

Wetlands near Lake Whatcom can purify the water, which saves the city money and time when it has to be cleaned to a potable state, Rybczyk said. Lake Whatcom, through this treatment process, provides water for 100,000 people, or almost half of Whatcom County.

“Think of wetlands as a natural dam,” Rybczyk said. “When it rains a lot, wetlands absorb all that water and release it slowly over time, rather than creating a giant pulse that floods everything in the area.”

On May 25, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, severely limiting the federal government’s ability to protect wetlands and their tributaries. In particular, wetlands that do not have a continuous surface connection to navigable water are not protected under the Clean Water Act, the High Court has ruled.

While the decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency affects federal regulations at the national level, local and state regulations in Washington will continue to ensure wetlands are well protected.

Most of the dry lands we know today were once wetlands. Development is one of the biggest threats to modern wetlands, Rybczyk said.

“Look at how the Nooksack River flooded quite dramatically a few years ago,” Rybczyk said. “Part of the problem was that we were building on a flood plain where there used to be wetlands, so when we have big storms, the water flows down there.”

Security provided by the City of Bellingham itself continues to be reviewed.

“The City of Bellingham reaffirms its commitment to protecting the environment, including wetlands. The extent to which the Court’s ruling on EPA’s federal authority under the Clean Water Act affects regulations promulgated by the state of Washington and the city of Bellingham is uncertain and will require time for reconsideration,” Eric Johnston, Bellingham’s director of public works, said.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, at the state level, the Washington Growth Management Act of 1990, the Shoreline Management Act of 1972, and the Water Pollution Control Act of 1945 provide greater protection for wetlands than ever before provided by federal regulations .

“Wetlands are critical to protecting water quality, reducing flood impacts and providing safe havens for endangered species,” Laura Watson, director of ecology, said in a press release. “It is important for Washingtonians to know that state law continues to provide the review and oversight necessary to evaluate the impacts of proposed development.”

However, there are many wetland regions across the country that do not receive the same local protection as Washington.

“My main concern is places where there is no protection other than at the federal level,” Rybczyk said. “We could end up in situations where wetlands start to develop that really shouldn’t develop.”