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Colorado slams SCOTUS wetlands ruling as it moves forward with its own permit regulations

March 21, 2024, 5:01 pm
Wetlands near Homestake Creek (John Fielder photo).

Outrage over the Trump-packed U.S. Supreme Court rolling back federal reproductive rights has in some ways overshadowed the now 6-3 conservative majority’s relentless assault on environmental regulations that for decades protected Colorado’s clean air and water.

Former president and current GOP candidate Donald Trump’s recently installed SCOTUS (he appointed three of the six staunch conservatives in his last term), has consistently ruled against federal environmental regulation – from carbon-spewing power plants to downwind air pollution. And it’s likely to rule against President Joe Biden’s new vehicle emissions limits.

Last year’s Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision – in which an Idaho couple simply didn’t want to have to apply for a federal wetlands dredging permit — largely flew under the national outrage radar, but it stripped away Clean Water Act protections for fully two-thirds of Colorado’s wetlands and streams, according to an amicus brief filed in support of those federal protections by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

Now Colorado lawmakers are trying to step into that regulatory void with Wednesday’s filing of the Regulate Dredge and Fill Activities in State Waters bill (HB24-1379). If passed, it would require a rulemaking process by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s Water Quality and Control Division to permit dredge and fill activities on both public and private land.

“There’s no mistake that [the Sackett] decision came right after Trump appointed three new justices to the Supreme Court, where there’s a conservative majority who could issue an industry-favorable ruling on this issue,” Conservation Colorado Senior Water Campaign Manager Josh Kuhn said in a phone interview.

“It’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of industry but now it does create an opportunity for Colorado to create regulatory certainty, and it’s imperative that we get this done the right way,” Kuhn added. “The Supreme Court’s decision ignores the science of groundwater. What it did is it said if you are standing in a wetland, and you don’t see surface water connecting that wetland to another covered [by EPA regulation] water body, it is no longer protected.”

Anyone who’s hiked Colorado’s backcountry knows there are all sorts of waterbodies that are disconnected from rivers, streams and lakes, fed by springs and often only existing on the surface when it’s been raining or following a decent snow year. In fact, the Colorado Wetland Information Center identifies 15 different types of wetland ecological systems in Colorado.

Those wetlands and ephemeral (not continually flowing) streams provide critical habitat for Colorado’s dwindling wildlife, guard against increasingly devastating wildfires fueled by manmade climate change and filter pollutants from vital sources of drinking water.

“Colorado has already lost half of our wetlands since statehood, and they are super-important for ecosystem services, where they mitigate floods, decrease the severity of wildfire, help retain water like sponges and release that water to provide base flows in drier parts of the year, providing critical wildlife habitat for about 80% of wildlife,” Kuhn said.

Now, thanks to the right-leaning SCOTUS installed by former President Donald Trump – including Colorado’s own Neil Gorsuch – 60% of those waterbodies are currently unprotected by the Clean Water Act’s 404 permit process administered successfully for five decades by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Now the state of Colorado must attempt to fill that role.

“Water is a precious resource and is critical to our economy and way of life,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis wrote in a press release Wednesday. “I am committed to protecting Colorado’s water today and building a more water-efficient, sustainable, and resilient future. Today, we further our commitment to protect Colorado’s water for the next generation of Coloradans.”

The Polis-backed HB24-1379 is sponsored in the Colorado Senate by Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, and in the Colorado House by state Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, and Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon.

A competing bill (SB24-127) was introduced last month by Republican state Sen. Barb Kirkmeyer. That proposal, dubbed the Regulate Dredged & Fill Material State Waters bill, has the backing of the Colorado Association of Homebuilders – a development trade organization that did not return a call seeking comment on the Dem-backed bill.

“Now that [definition of] Waters of the U.S. is much more limited than it was, the things that [SCOTUS] said are not Waters of the U.S. are ephemeral streams, disconnected wetlands and fens,” Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said in a phone interview. “So on the Western Slope, the mountains, nearly all of our streams are not year-round streams. They flow when there’s water. So if those are not protected anymore by the feds, then are they going to be protected by the state or not? That’s the question that’s going be answered in these two competing legislative bills.”

Chandler-Henry is currently the Eagle County representative for and president of both the Colorado River District and the Water Quality and Quantity (QQ) program of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. She said both groups are likely to weigh in on the new bill at some point.

Conservation Colorado’s Kuhn said the Kirkmeyer bill “basically draws a political line. It says that if waters are outside of 1,500 feet from the historical floodplain, they would be unprotected.”

That would make state regulation of dredge and fill more expensive, he argues, because the state would then have to physically survey and determine whether bodies of water outside of that boundary should be regulated. State regulation will primarily be paid for by permit fees and possibly some federal grants. Colorado is out front nationally on this contentious issue.

“The Kirkmeyer bill houses the program in the Department of Natural Resources, and so that would also drive up the costs because you’d have to create a new division, and you’d also have to create a new commission and staff for that commission, whereas that expertise already exists within the [CDPHE’s] Water Quality Control Division and the Water Quality Control Commission.”

Kuhn thinks Colorado’s agriculture industry should support HB24-1379.

“We’re actually hopeful that ag will not be opposing this legislation because in the existing 404 program there are longstanding exemptions and exclusions,” Kuhn said. “One of those exemptions is for certain types of agricultural activity. That would be copied and pasted into legislation and that should appease concerns from the ag community.”

And Kuhn added that while the new law will mostly focus on development aimed at dredging and filling bodies of water on private land, there’s a concern about protections for wetlands on Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land facing development.

“The [SCOTUS] ruling does apply to both public and private land, but the majority of the development pressure is on private land,” Kuhn said. “That doesn’t mean if there was a mining claim on Forest Service land and they wanted to build a road or something – [in the past] they would have had to secure a 404 permit — but if those waters weren’t jurisdictional today, they could just go out and destroy it without a permit.”

Mark Eddy, representing the Protect Colorado Waters Coalition, cited AG Weiser’s contention that responsible industry should not fear reasonable regulation.

“That’s the way we look at this is it’s reasonable, it’s transparent, everybody knows what the rules are, and it protects a valuable resource,” Eddy said. “It is not saying you can never touch these places; it’s that there’s a process in place to determine which ones you can touch, and then, when you do have to develop them, what kind of mitigation needs to occur.”

Tom Caldwell, co-owner and head brewer at Big Trout Brewing Company in Winter Park, said in a press release that his company needs clean, cold water to craft award-winning beer.

“Our town depends on clean water for a multitude of tourist activities that bring people from all over the world,” Caldwell said. “We need to protect our waterways and wetlands. House Speaker Julie McCluskie and Senator Dylan Roberts’ bill is a needed remedy to a terrible decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on the Colorado Times Recorder website.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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