Wetlands or Wastelands?

When I was a kid growing up in northeastern North Carolina, my grandmother took my brother and me on a few hikes across the forests and wetlands of the coastal plain. She’s a gifted birder with an enviable ability to detect a species from its call. What my brother and I lacked in outdoor knowledge we made up for in complaints. I remember us traveling in her bright red Toyota Echo, drinking from hot water bottles, and dreaming of air conditioning and ice cream and whatever else awaited us after our excursions. Still, my grandmother was determined to show us the wonders of nature.

Merchants Millpond State Park, Lassiter Swamp. Photograph courtesy of Debra Willard

We once visited Merchants Millpond State Park just south of Virginia. The park hosts a diverse array of frogs and snakes, as well as over 200 bird species, of which we saw maybe two. While our outing did not exactly resemble a nature documentary, an abundance of lush cypress and gum trees covered in silvery curls of Spanish moss provided a serene view for our long walk. However, the park often called an “enchanted forest” failed to impress me.

My poor attitude about such a special environment may come as a shock, but wetlands weren’t always cool. Centuries earlier, a group of land surveyors marking the border between Virginia and North Carolina visited a wetland about 20 miles northeast of Merchants Millpond and absolutely hated it. According to one surveyor, Colonel William Byrd II, the swamp was “a horrible desert, [where] the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the Air, and render it unfit for Respiration.” Apparently, that’s how the Great Dismal Swamp got its name. “Dismal” was also just a word Europeans often used to describe areas with prolonged standing water.

European colonizers generally associated wetlands with negative qualities like disease, bugs, and noxious odors, and considered them ‘useless.’ Many people in the United States held this sentiment well into the 20th century. As education surrounding wetlands and their ecological benefits increased in the mid- to late-1900s, legislation to protect and restore wetlands became more prevalent.

(l-r) Yellow bellied sliders in Nags Head, NC, Great blue heron at the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary in Corolla, NC, Halloween pennant dragonfly at the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary in Corolla, NC, Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary, Corolla, NC. Photographs courtesy of Emma Brentjens

Wetlands of all kinds would come to enchant me, too, with their elusive herons, shy pond sliders and grumpy snapping turtles, musical toads, smooth lily pads, and cypress trees towering out of the water. I grew especially fond of the coastal, swampy landscape of northeastern North Carolina during a summer in Corolla spent photographing and identifying insect species at a sanctuary. Even with the pull of the ocean on the other side of the island, I was drawn to the dragonflies, butterflies, and moths of the marsh.

Wetlands offer far more than beauty. Wetland vegetation filters out pollutants from water and captures suspended sediments, improving water quality. Their capacity to hold water also reduces runoff and mitigates flooding, further protecting downstream waters.

It took me many years to understand my grandmother’s appreciation for the wetlands we were so lucky to visit and develop my own deep relationship with the landscape. The relationship of wetlands to the United States, on the other hand, remains tumultuous. Wildlife biologist David Mushet and wetland ecologist Aram Calhoun describe attitudes toward wetlands in the U.S. as “a swinging pendulum,” which has fluctuated between pro-conservation and pro-draining or development. Now, in 2023, our country seems to be swinging back toward the ‘dismal’ side.

On May 25th, 2023, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that removes protections for wetlands under the Clean Water Act (CWA) in Sackett v. EPA. The Sackett family argued that they should not need a permit to develop a wetland on their property under EPA regulations. All nine justices ruled that the Sackett’s property is not covered by the CWA. But there were differences in interpretation of the act.

Satellite image of Carolina bays in Bladen County, NC. Photograph courtesy of locss.org

CWA authority only extends to “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). WOTUS included “navigable” waters like seas and interstate waters, tributaries and impoundments of these waters, and, until now, wetlands that have a significant hydrologic influence on another protected water. These wetlands were broadly characterized as “adjacent wetlands.” The five-justice majority on Sackett, however, argues that only wetlands with a “continuous surface water connection” to a regulated waterway are “adjacent” and thus covered by the CWA. Despite agreeing that the Sackett’s property does not fall under EPA jurisdiction, the four remaining justices took a wider interpretation of the wetlands included in WOTUS and argue that covering only wetlands with a surface water connection changes the meaning of the act so that “adjacent” wetlands now refer only to “adjoining” wetlands.

Many wetlands, including those often referred to as “geographically isolated wetlands” (or GIWs), fall beyond this scope, and one type is even named after the Carolinas. Carolina bays are predominantly rain-fed wetlands that form oval-shaped divots in the landscape and range from New Jersey to northern Florida. Most have variable saturation periods, meaning they’re only wet during part of the year. While they don’t have much of a connection to groundwater, Carolina bays and other GIWs can remove pollutants similarly to wetlands with a more direct hydrologic connection to downstream waters.

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph courtesy of Dale Suiter, USFWS

I saw a different kind of ‘isolated’ wetland on a class field trip last October. We traveled across eastern North Carolina, taking water quality measurements and examining soil cores at various wetland sites. One stop was Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which extends across three counties in the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula. The word “pocosin” comes from an Algonquian word for “swamp on a hill.” These wetlands are mostly fed by rainfall and are a source of freshwater for surrounding wetlands and estuaries.

This narrowing of WOTUS scope is concerning because the CWA provides vital protections for these waters. The CWA was signed into law in 1972, soon after the creation of the EPA in 1970 and a fire on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969. The Cuyahoga River was covered in oil slicks thanks to various polluting industries that cropped up in Cleveland during the Civil War continuously discharging toxic waste into its waters. The river experienced at least 13 fires, a hazard that was not uncommon across other industrial cities in the U.S. Pressure from environmental activists and the general public after the 1969 incident encouraged the passing of the CWA. Though still impaired, the quality of the Cuyahoga has improved greatly under CWA regulations.

The CWA has also provided critical protections for coastal ecosystems and communities. Section 403 protects the ocean from pollution and other degrading activities which threaten human health and marine ecosystems by allowing the EPA to regulate discharges into the ocean.

Protections for wetlands in the CWA are mainly covered by Section 404, which similarly requires a permit to discard fill (rocks, dirt, or other materials needed for construction) into WOTUS and authorizes the EPA Administrator to restrict discharge of these materials into waterways if the proposed activity is found to have an adverse effect on tap water, wildlife, and recreational areas. This section allows the EPA to regulate development of wetlands, but only those covered under the definition of WOTUS.

Soil core and color chart. Photograph courtesy of Emma Brentjens

The status of wetlands under the CWA has always been contentious, especially since the presence of wetlands themselves is not always easy to determine. Wetlands are classified based on three characteristics: hydrology, soils, and vegetation. I got a sense of this complicated process on my wetlands class field trip. At each site, we took note of the surrounding plants (are there any species that thrive in saturated soils like cordgrasses or cypress trees?), and signs of water (was the water level above the soil or were there water-stained leaves?). We also looked for evidence of wetland hydrology below ground. Wetland soils, those that are saturated for extended periods of time, can be very tricky to identify. These soils are often gray in color and may contain small rusty spots throughout the soil or along roots where iron has reacted with oxygen.

Bodie Island salt marsh in Nags Head, NC. Photograph courtesy of Emma Brentjens

Sometimes, you can tell a wetland by its scent, which was the case for a salt marsh near the Bodie Island lighthouse in Nags Head. Wetlands may release hydrogen sulfide gas, which smells like rotten eggs, indicating an absence of dissolved oxygen characteristic of decaying plant material in low oxygen conditions, like standing water. This is the odor that Byrd found obnoxious.

What struck me on this trip was how each site was beautiful and vastly different; I wouldn’t even know some sites were wetlands without my professors’ judgment. Relying on a visible surface water connection to grant CWA protections will exclude such wetlands and so many others, with devastating consequences for other bodies of water.

Albemarle Sound in Edenton, NC. Photograph courtesy of Emma Brentjens

In my lifetime, I have already noticed changes to my home landscape, the dual impacts of climate change and development eating away at the shoreline and, most of all, the deteriorating water quality in the Albemarle Sound. Harmful algal blooms (HABs), or rapid growth of toxic algae, in particular have taken over the sound during warmer months. Oftentimes, these blooms occur when excess nutrients enter waterbodies from farm fertilizer runoff, fueling algal growth. Due to the public health risk they pose, HABs often limit fishing, swimming, and kayaking, typically a part of everyday life during the summer. Wetlands can help reduce nutrient pollution by absorbing nutrients and decreasing runoff. Therefore, their conservation is critical to protecting the sound, especially in this highly agricultural region.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, wetlands protection will largely fall to state, local, and tribal governments, which has recently put North Carolina wetlands at risk. On June 8th, the State Senate passed the North Carolina Farm Act of 2023, a bill which in addition to many other provisions, would prevent the state from adopting more stringent protections than those provided at the federal level. Despite what five supreme court justices seem to think, researchers have argued that the term “isolated” is often insufficient to describe wetlands. Even those without a “continuous surface water connection” influence the health of surrounding waters and communities.

Merchants Millpond is protected as a state park (perhaps to the dismay of indoorsy children with adventurous grandmothers), but the same cannot be said for all ecologically-important wetlands. North Carolina must adopt stronger wetlands regulations to protect these valuable ecosystems and coastal communities.

Rachel Carson spoke often of wonder. During her John Burroughs Medal acceptance speech for her 1951 book The Sea Around Us, she said, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.” The more I learn about wetlands, the more appreciation and awe I have for them. By various fascinating mechanisms, wetlands keep us safe, and we need to look out for them, too.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Emma Brentjens

Emma Brentjens is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation and Community-based Environmental Management. She is driven by her belief that science is for everyone and aspires to write about environmental topics in an accessible and engaging way.