As Indiana struggles with troubled waterways, concerns are mounting among activists and environmentalists over the potential economic and ecological impacts of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Indiana’s dwindling wetlands. 

Wetlands vary widely because of regional differences in soil but, ultimately, are described as an area where water covers soil and is retained all year or for varying points, according to the EPA

They provide vital physical, ecological and economic benefits and functions, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources

In late May, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the Environmental Protection Agency in Sackett v EPA, arguing that Congress has not defined clearly under the Clean Water Act what the EPA should regulate when it comes to wetlands. 

The court took their ruling a step further and redefined the criteria for wetlands in a move that is worrying many across the state, said John Ketzenberger, director of government relations at the Indiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. 

Under the new criteria, a wetland has to have a continuous surface connected with an established body of water. More than half of the United States’ wetlands will no longer meet the criteria and will lose federal protections, said Bill Weeks, who is on the board of Indiana Conservation Voters.

SCOTUS made the decision knowing this, Weeks said. 

“A traditionally conservative court might have said that if people believe the government’s work under the Clean Water Act was too intrusive, they should elect people to Congress who want to change the law. Instead, the court has stepped in and done work Congress could certainly have done if it thought necessary,” Weeks said. “The opinion is not conservative. It is a remaking of law by an unelected body. Now, it is up to people who care about the Nation’s water to take back the tools to protect our water with clearer federal or much more active state laws.” 

The SCOTUS ruling leaves the fate of Indiana’s wetlands in the state’s hands, said Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council. State legislators and organizers already had a contentious history regarding wetlands legislation before more than 100 organizations opposed a controversial wetlands amendment in the Statehouse earlier this year. Despite strong bipartisan opposition, the controversial amendment passed, further weakening state protections.

Many are hopeful, however, that overwhelming public and bipartisan support can sway lawmakers into making the right decision, as Hoosiers are already seeing measurable negative impacts caused by the loss of wetlands, Frank said. 

RELATED: Our Indiana wetlands — in hot water

Why experts are concerned

While the decision may be a huge victory for real estate development, Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, said it is a huge concern for human and environmental health. Many environmental experts worry that the new ruling will make Indiana’s already polluted waters worse. In recent years, Indiana has witnessed a rise in harmful algal blooms, predominantly caused by animal waste from farm production.

The court ruling is likely to lead to an increase in urban sprawl, Pelton said, subsequently amplifying the volume of harmful bacteria entering waterways. The state’s most recent assessment found that 73% of the assessed river and stream miles in Indiana were not safe for swimming or fishing. 

“Any state that has almost three quarters of its river and stream miles impaired for swimming has a real water pollution problem,” Pelton said. “And this is only going to get worse with this recent Supreme Court decision.” 

Wetlands play a critical role in human health, Frank said, by reducing flooding and purifying water. 

During heavy rains, wetlands act like sponges and store massive amounts of water, providing a natural flood control. They also play a major role in maintaining water quality by trapping harmful pesticides and pollutants, such as pesticides and septic runoff. Wetlands naturally “recycle” some of the organic and inorganic substances within its system.  

Wetlands can keep wastewater treatment costs low by filtering runoff from livestock operations through its system, according to the INDNR. Because of its natural filtration system, water from wetlands costs less to treat when taken for public water use. 

“We cannot have a healthy population if we have polluted water and flooding,” Frank said. “Indiana’s wetlands are critical for water quality, flood protection and species preservation. And now the fate of our wetlands is in the hands of the state.” 

EPA Responds

In response to the Supreme Court decision, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement:

“As a public health agency, EPA is committed to ensuring that all people, regardless of race, the money in their pocket, or community they live in, have access to clean, safe water. We will never waver from that responsibility.

I am disappointed by today’s Supreme Court decision that erodes longstanding clean water protections. The Biden-Harris Administration has worked to establish a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ that safeguards our nation’s waters, strengthens economic opportunity, and protects people’s health while providing the clarity and certainty that farmers, ranchers, and landowners deserve. These goals will continue to guide the agency forward as we carefully review the Supreme Court decision and consider next steps.

In 1972, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Clean Water Act, giving EPA and Army Corps implementation responsibilities. In doing so, our leaders recognized that protecting our nation’s waters is vital to ensuring a thriving economy and agricultural sector, to sustaining diverse ecosystems, and to protecting the water our children drink. 

Over the past 50 years, we have made transformational progress — rivers that were once on fire have been restored and now sustain vibrant communities in every corner of the country. A common sense and science-based definition of ‘waters of the United States’ is essential to building on that progress and fulfilling our responsibility to preserve our nation’s waters — now and for future generations.”

Contact staff writer Jayden Kennett at 317-762-7847 or by email Follow her on Twitter @JournoJay.