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State official: Vt. wetlands are well protected despite U.S. Supreme Court ruling

A wetland is pictured.
Laura Lapierre
A wetland is pictured inside Roy Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

More than half the wetlands in the United States are no longer protected under the federal Environmental Protection Agency. That's after the US Supreme Court limited the scope of regulation under the 1972 Clean Water Act earlier this year.

The ruling forced the EPA late last month to remove many restrictions on development for federal wetlands that used to fall under the act's protection.

So now that experts have had some time to digest the news, where does that leave wetland protections in Vermont?

To learn more, Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Laura Lapierre, the wetlands program manager for the state of Vermont. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Now, before we get to the specifics of Vermont's wetlands, what does the Supreme Court decision mean for federal wetlands that used to be protected under the Clean Water Act?

A woman smiles. She's surrounded by snow and trees.
Laura Lapierre

Laura Lapierre: Well, it means that many wetlands aren't protected by the federal Clean Water Act. In some states, there are state protections that are picking up those those wetland protections or continuing those wetland protections. And in other states, there is no separate state protection and those wetlands are unregulated and can be protected through voluntary means, but not through regulation.

So what is the status now for Vermont's wetlands? You talked about state protection; does Vermont have good state protections for its wetlands?

Yes, we do. We protect wetlands for their functions and values that they provide for the landscape and for the people of Vermont.

Elaborate a bit more on that. Why are wetlands important? What do they do to maintain the health of surrounding ecosystems, especially in states like Vermont?

Many of them provide water quality protection by attenuating nutrients, holding floodwaters, allowing sediments to settle out and such, and for nutrients being taken up by plants. You have lots of flood protection when the wetlands fill up, and they're sponges and hold the waters preventing them from going downstream and damaging properties. Many wetlands are really important for wildlife habitat as well, fisheries habitat, fish nurseries. And some of our more rare and remarkable habitats we have in Vermont are also classified as wetlands that make up about 4% of the state of Vermont.

We all know how terrible the flooding was this summer in parts of the state. I'm wondering if wetlands played any role in perhaps mitigating some of the damage from those floods?

Yeah, certainly we have seen, in earlier studies, that wetlands have helped provide and mitigate flood damages in Vermont before, such as in Middlebury. And it certainly happened again, here in the these floods; it was very interesting to be driving around the landscape after this flood event and seeing areas of wetland that may not be inundated with water most years completely filled and holding waters from going downstream.

It is a bit of a confusing ruling the Supreme Court came down with, because some states still have state protections of wetlands. I'm wondering if there are any wetlands, though, in the state of Vermont that are not considered "significant." Because that was one of the things that came out of that ruling, that there was a certain classification for wetlands to be considered significant enough for protection.

So Class III wetlands, yeah, they're the category that are below the level of significance. A wetland is any area that has water reaching towards the surface for at least 14 days out of the growing season. So it can be a very short period. These can be fairly small areas, where, maybe there's a small area of lawn that meets the three parameters of having the wetland — soils, water loving plants, and the wetland hydrology — but is very small in size and not providing any habitat and such. So when we're thinking about the Class III wetlands, they're a subset of the wetlands in Vermont and are often fairly small in size and such.

Small enough that a major developer wouldn't be looking to build there? I'm just trying to get an idea of how vulnerable these Class III wetlands may be.

They could be vulnerable, certainly, to development going forward. If they're smaller, maybe someone would just — it would be easier to avoid them. But they're still out there on the landscape. And there aren't state or federal protections.

Ultimately, Laura, what is the upshot here? What kind of impacts do you expect the erasure of the federal rules to have on the state's wetlands, if any? What does this mean for Vermonters? Should they be concerned about this?

I'm concerned of the messaging and the confusion here because we have completely separate state regulations from federal regulations. And I don't want the headlines saying, "Fifty percent of the country's wetlands are no longer protected" and have people think that applies to Vermont, because it very much doesn't.

We just want to make sure we get the message out there that if someone is proposing work in or near a wetland in the state of Vermont, that folks should still be looking to avoid and minimize impacts to those areas and to certainly give the wetlands program a call if there are any questions for permitting or avoidance measures.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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