In 2020, Florida took over management of a U.S. Clean Water Act program, so in the Sunshine State, federal officials no longer decide whether wetlands can be dredged or filled in for developments.
Other states may follow, but Illinois seems content with the status quo.
Proponents of such takeovers argue that state agencies can be more efficient than federal bureaucrats. But environmentalists say state regulators are not fully capable of undertaking the task and can become automatic buffers for economic goals at the expense of ecological value.
Some states have backed away from similar attempts to handle clearances under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act due to cost and jurisdictional disputes.
“We have the Clean Water Act because states screwed it up the first time around,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group that has filed a lawsuit against the Florida on this. “The only reason these states are advocating for local control is to have dirtier water.”
Generally, the US Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for Section 404; the United States Environmental Protection Agency sets the conditions for evaluating permit applications and reviews applications for approval or rejection.
For years, states have had the ability to assume control of the Section 404 program and other parts of the Clean Water Act.
Michigan adopted permits in 1984 and New Jersey a few years later, but no state has done so since Florida.
“Under the Trump administration, federal officials have encouraged states to seek scrutiny,” wrote Stateline reporter Alex Brown of Pew Charitable Trusts. “Florida’s bid was approved just weeks before President Donald Trump left office.”
However, Brown added, “Florida is defying federal court rulings and EPA guidelines regarding permitting waters. Although federal district court judges in Arizona and New Mexico struck down a Trump-era rule limiting streams and waters protected by the Clean Water Act, Florida still uses the old definition of the Trump era.
A few states are considering taking Section 404 rights, including Alaska, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Arizona, Indiana and Oregon have opted out.
State responsibilities for wetlands shared by five government agencies
Since the earth’s resources are limited and the demands are not, it is inevitable to balance human activities and wetlands. Since the proposed activities may harm wetlands, the government seeks to weigh the costs to the resource against the benefits to developers or the public.
“Wetlands are important habitats that provide valuable ecological services, such as retaining water to reduce flooding and allowing nutrients to accumulate and build up, which then leads to highly productive,” wrote Randy Smith, Wetland Wildlife Program Manager for the Illinois Department. of Natural Resources, explaining the Illinois Wetlands Campaign. “They also enable the physical and biochemical treatment of sediments and other pollutants that degrade natural features and ecosystems.
“Unfortunately, over 90 percent of Illinois’ wetlands have been lost to agriculture and development,” Smith added. “The remaining wetlands have been degraded and reduced in their ability to perform ecosystem functions. In addition, public perception of wetland ecosystems is often negative. They are considered a habitat for unwanted animals, such as mosquitoes and snakes. These views and biases often lead to public resistance when confronted with the idea of wetland restoration and management.
Recognizing the importance of wetlands, federal and state governments have established standards to help protect them.
But regulating wetlands can be complicated, with overlapping powers given to different government entities, some with different definitions or priorities of wetlands.
In Illinois, five government agencies have some authority over wetlands – three federal agencies (the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service) and two of State (the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency).
“Despite the challenges, a number of wetland restoration projects have taken place through the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan’s Wetland Campaign, [which] works to assess the health of the state’s wildlife and their habitats, identify current issues, and define strategies and actions to conserve species of concern,” Smith said.