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Beyond the surface: How a recent ruling on wetlands could impact you

Experts say a recent Supreme Court ruling could impact everything from drinking water to home prices
Posted: 3:48 PM, Sep 28, 2023
Updated: 2023-11-09 14:25:57-05
Wetlands in Johnson County drone

JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. — A recent ruling by the Supreme Court is causing alarm among environmentalists, while simultaneously being applauded by many within the farming and home building industries.

The issue? Wetlands, some of which are no longer protected.

Wetlands are distinct ecosytems flooded or saturated by water, either permanently or seasonally.

Previously, under the Clean Water Act, wetlands were universally protected.

But now under this latest ruling, only wetlands that are connected to other bodies of water such as rivers and lakes are protected, meaning those standalone wetlands are not.


Wetlands in Johnson County
Wetlands in Johnson County.

This ruling dates back to a case that started in 2007, when an Idaho couple wanted to build their dream home next to a lake but were stopped by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fast forward to this past May, when the Supreme Court sided with the couple by limiting the EPA's ability to enforce what's known as the Clean Water Act of 1972.

This comes down to a different interpretation of what are considered "Waters of the United States," specifically impacting the types of wetlands that are protected.

Collections of voices weigh in

To better understand this issue and how it could potentially impact you, KSHB 41's Caitlin Knute sought out a collection of voices.

She sat down with an environmentalist who works to protect Kansas waterways, the head of a regional entity that helps develop policies and projects to sustain a healthy environment, the head of a large family farm operation and someone from the Homebuilders Association of Kansas City.

Shawnee Mission Lake is a popular Johnson County attraction, offering a place to swim, boat, take your dogs, do some bird watching or reel in a catch or two.

But, just off the main lake, is perhaps a lesser-known portion of the park, although arguably even more picturesque.

Dawn Buehler, Kansas Riverkeeper, Friends of the Kaw

Dawn Buehler
Dawn Buehler, a Kansas Riverkeeper, explains what wetlands are.

"We are here at a wetland that is connected to Shawnee Mission Lake," Dawn Buehler explained.

Dawn Buehler is a Kansas Riverkeeper with the group Friends of the Kaw and the Chairwoman of the Kansas Water Authority. She explained what wetlands are and what they do.

"They are often referred to as the kidneys of our waterways. So, they filter out pollutants before that water makes it way to another water, body such as a river or stream," Buehler said.

She says that not only protects our drinking water, but it also cuts down on costs.

"When we pre-filter the water before it makes its way into the Kansas River, then that makes it easier to clean it through our drinking water plants, and that can reduce the costs for those systems," she said.

Buehler added that wetlands also act as overflow areas to help prevent flash flooding during heavy rains.

Previously, these bodies of water were protected by the Clean Water Act. Now, those protections only apply to wetlands that are connected at a surface level to another body of water such as a lake or river.

It's good news for the Shawnee Mission Park location where Buehler's interview took place.

But it leaves other standalone wetlands out to dry.

"Those would not be protected under the Clean Water Act," she said.

While many environmentalists see this as a loss, there are plenty who are celebrating the decision from a personal property standpoint.

Hayden Guetterman, family farmer

Hayden Guetterman
Hayden Guetterman farms land on family-run farm.

"I mean, it's one of our freedoms as an American citizen, we are allowed to be free on our own land," Kansas farmer Hayden Guetterman pointed out.

Although he doesn't have any wetlands on the property of his large family farming operation, there are creeks and other waterways he says he works to protect.

"I take a vested interest in protecting the water and soil, because that's what I make a living off of," he said.

That includes building human-made terraces in his fields to slow the flow of water during heavy rains, limiting runoff into nearby streams.

He also plants a cover crop of rye among his soybeans, not for harvest, but to grow roots in the soil year-round that serve as an anchor preventing soil erosion.

Guetterman hopes his style of farming offers hope that even with this ruling, it's possible for the agriculture and environmental communities to work together for the sake of the land.

Tom Jacobs, Mid-America Regional Council (MARC)

Tom Jacobs
Tom Jacobs with MARC shares the organization's perspective on wetlands.

It's a philosophy Tom Jacobs with the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) can get behind.

"There's ample experience that's demonstrated how we can take care of our wetlands, maintain our watershed health, and achieve our other community goals at the same time," Jacobs said.

Planning and coordinating among agencies is central to what MARC does, so Jacobs stands poised to help cities and counties navigate what this ruling could mean locally.

However, because he says wetlands here are mostly in streamside zones and floodplains, it might not be as big of an issue for the metro.

"Many of our local governments have policies and plans and regulations in place that govern how the land and floodplains and areas adjacent are used," he said.

It's something Will Ruder knows all too well.

Will Ruder, Executive VP of Homebuilders Association of Greater Kansas City

Will Ruder
Will Ruder speaks to new ruling's impact on home building and land development.

As the Executive Vice President of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Kansas City, he's used to abiding by rules and regulations for new developments, like the one Knute visited near Stillwell, Kansas.

Up until now, Ruder said the Clean Water Act was murky in what was and wasn't protected, leading to confusion for builders.

"I think the biggest benefit for this ruling from a home building and land development standpoint is the clarity it provides," he said.

Ruder added that clarity could speed up the building process, which could translate to light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to lowering home prices.

"You know one of the things that has really hamstrung would-be homebuyers is simply the lack of supply," Ruder said.

Still, even with this new freedom to develop certain areas, he says builders are still willing to work with the environment.

"It is going to be a case-by-case basis, absolutely," Ruder said. "You don't look at a piece of ground and say, 'Wait, that would look great if it was just flat as a pancake and covered in asphalt or cement.' There's a vision associated with bringing these communities to place."

He adds that vision could involve building around any wetlands.

Looking ahead

Kayaking on Wetlands

For now, all the interviewees agree on one thing: this ruling is still relatively new, and it could take time for any challenges or clarification on how it applies to waterways in Kansas and Missouri to rise to the surface.