U.S. Supreme Court decision undermines wetlands protection

August 22, 2023

In a recent decision known as Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Supreme Court upended 50 years of congressionally directed and science-based protection of the nation’s wetlands. This decision will leave most of Delaware’s freshwater wetlands – which are often accompanied by robust stands of trees and represent about 15 percent of Delaware’s landscape – without any federal or state protections.

Scientists have long known that wetlands are a key part of a web of interconnected land and waters that play a crucial role in protecting and preserving clean, life-giving water.

Since the 1700s, Delaware has lost about half of its wetlands, and within the past 10 to 15 years, the state has lost more than 3,000 additional acres. Now unprotected by federal law, many of Delaware’s freshwater wetlands are threatened by pollution discharges as well as destruction and modification that will have a direct adverse effect on the ability of wetlands to support the unique plant and animal life that define our natural spaces. And as those natural habitats disappear, so too will their ability to soak up and store the increased rainfall resulting from more powerful climate change-driven storms, filter harmful levels of nutrients and mitigate climate change by storing carbon. Excess rainwater will now occupy our neighborhoods, and flood our streets and roads, carrying into our streams, rivers, lakes and bays all the grease, heavy metals, animal wastes and other pollutants that the wetlands would otherwise have filtered free of charge. All together, these benefits provide $1 billion in economic value to the State of Delaware each year.

Squandering these amazing resources is surely not what Congress intended in 1970 when it required the EPA, and by extension the states, to restore and maintain our water quality.

For many years, Delaware has wrestled with the need for and the means to protect its wetlands under state law. Indeed, Delaware is the only Mid-Atlantic state without its own freshwater wetland regulations. Never has the need for that protection been more urgent. Now is the time for the Delaware Legislature and the governor to build off enactment of the Clean Water for Delaware Act to ensure this foundation of Delaware’s clean water for the future is not lost. The federal government has retreated, and the State of Delaware now has the opportunity and obligation to establish the required law and regulations to protect these critical natural assets.

Freshwater wetlands are an essential natural component of our state’s – and certainly the Delaware Inland Bays’ – integrated water system including streams, rivers, ponds, groundwater, estuaries and bays. Freshwater wetlands of all sizes are also critically important for biodiversity – many rare plants and animals live only in wetlands, and many more use them at some point in their lives. Studies have shown that even the smallest wetlands play an important role across the landscape, and as they are lost, the remaining wetlands increase in value for people, plants, and animals. The Center for the Inland Bays will rely on its robust understanding of the science of wetlands to expand public understanding of the threat they face without state protection, and ensure a solid foundation to fix this very real and harmful gap in critical environmental protection.

To learn more and find out how you can become involved, go to the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays website at

Christophe A. G. Tulou is the executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. 
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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