In late May, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act, removing some federal authority over wetlands. It did that by limiting the definition of what areas actually make up the protected “waters of the United States.” That leaves wetland-heavy communities like Wrangell wondering whether the decision will clear an easier path to development projects.
Almost 45% of the state of Alaska is classified as wetlands.
“And a good chunk of our land is considered wetlands,” added Wrangell Borough Manager Jeff Good at an Assembly meeting on Sept. 12.
That’s because wetlands development has traditionally operated under a different set of restrictions, overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers. It often requires tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in what’s called “compensatory wetlands mitigation.”
But earlier this year, the nation’s Supreme Court handed down a decision that could change the process drastically.
“It was a huge ruling,” Good told Assembly members, “And really it called back from some of the authority that the Army Corps of Engineers had had over the years – presumed authority.”
For years, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers considered a wide variety of muskegs, seasonal ponds, streams, and other small waterways part of its federal wetlands jurisdiction. The Supreme Court ruling tightened the definition of a wetland under the Clean Water Act, saying there must be a “continuous surface connection” to larger, federally-managed bodies of water.
“The Supreme Court ruling essentially stated that it’s got to have a path to navigable water before the federal government has jurisdiction over that,” Good said. “The states can do whatever they want.”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy applauded the decision, saying it promotes the kind of “responsible development” his administration tries to encourage.
Good told Assembly members he wasn’t sure exactly how the ruling would impact Wrangell — though he expects something will happen.
“Does that mean that that land we set aside for what wasn’t actually a wetland? Do we get that back?” Good asked. “Those are questions I have as well. I think that’s something that the Army Corps and ADEC [Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the state authority over wetlands and waterways] are gonna have to figure out how they’re gonna move forward with it.”
Wrangell is in the process of developing new housing lots on wetlands where a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school used to be, and set aside almost $150,000 for wetlands mitigation for the site.
“We need to claw that back,” said Wrangell Mayor Patty Gilbert, pointing out that wetlands mitigation isn’t just complicating Wrangell housing development.
“It’s stalling our efforts to build roads and make more industrial lots and open those up,” she added.
Wrangell Assembly members expressed support and curiosity about how the rollback of federal jurisdiction over wetlands might change the island’s development plans.
Assembly member Ryan Howe said from a development standpoint, the Supreme Court decision could be really good news for Wrangell. But he also said it’s important to be cautious when it comes to building over wetlands.
“I think it is good to remove red tape,” Howe said. “But I also think we have to be really wise about how we use our land so that we don’t kill off our fish.”
With the large number of wetland areas in and around Wrangell, Howe noted that many wetlands can connect to anadromous waterways – areas where fish return year after year to spawn.
“I’ve heard stories about creeks on the mainland, just across the channel that loggers would dredge to make roads, and they killed off 50-inch salmon because they just didn’t know any better,” Howe said.
It’s not immediately clear whether Wrangell will recover wetlands mitigation money or land. Development of new industrial lots remains stalled as the Borough waits to hear back from the Army Corps of Engineers about wetlands mitigation for roads in the industrial subdivision, while phase-one development at the Alder Top Village housing subdivision continues.
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