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May 31, 2023

MSU water, environmental experts can discuss impacts of US Supreme Court EPA decision

On Thursday, May 25, the U.S. Supreme Court released its ruling on Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, siding with an Idaho couple who waged a long-running battle against the EPA to build a house on wetlands near Priest Lake, one of the state’s largest bodies of water. The decision dramatically narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act, undoing protections that have safeguarded the nation’s waters for more than 50 years. Michigan State University experts are available to comment on the various impacts of the decision.  

Dawn Dechand is an associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering. She researches the fate of pollutants in ecosystems and the design of ecological treatment systems. Contact:, (517) 432-7732 

“This decision will adversely impact the water quality, wildlife and property values in the U.S., and while I agree the regulatory definition of wetlands is difficult to understand and, in rare cases, too broad, this is because wetlands are complex and diverse ecosystems that cannot be simply generalized based on navigability or their connection to navigable waters,” Dechand said. “When property owners and builders destroy wetlands, they are destroying habitat, decreasing the capability of the watershed to treat water pollution and increasing the risk of flooding in nearby communities. Decades of wetland mitigation policy have demonstrated that we cannot engineer new wetlands that fully capture the complexity, beauty and functions of the wetlands we’ve destroyed. This decision will have repercussions that outlive our generation.” 

Phanikumar Mantha is a professor in MSU’s College of Engineering. His research focus is on water quality and environmental flow and transport processes. He studies the fate and transport of chemical and biological agents (nutrients, algae, bacteria, viruses) in different hydrologic units in the Great Lakes region of North America, which includes watersheds, rivers and streams, lakes and groundwater. His research combines data from field observations with computational models to gain insights into complex biophysical processes, make predictions in managing natural resources and frame policy. Two general research themes of interest include coastal processes and water quality in the Great Lakes and integrated hydrologic modeling in large river basins. Contact: 

Stephen Hamilton is professor emeritus of the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station and Department of Integrative Biology at MSU. His principal research interests involve ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry, with particular attention to aquatic environments and the movement of water through landscapes. Contact:

“The decision by the Supreme Court regarding wetland protection is particularly impactful for us here in Michigan. Lakes, rivers and streams are exceedingly important to our economy and our culture, and wetlands play a critical role in keeping them clean, being especially effective in removing nutrients and other pollutants in water passing through them. Yet we have lost over 80% of our wetlands in the southeastern and Thumb counties, many originally drained for farming and often later converted to urban and residential areas.”  

“Scientists who study the movement of water through landscapes have shown how many wetlands are connected to lakes and rivers via underground water movement even where they lack the ‘continuous surface water connection’ that the court’s decision requires. Furthermore, wetland water tables tend to vary seasonally and from year to year, making the requirement for a surface water connection for their protection problematic in many cases because it depends on when one looks for it. For these reasons, the decision to require a continuous surface water connection is likely to exclude many wetlands from protection, with negative repercussions for water quality in our lakes, rivers and streams. Michigan would be wise to enact our own regulations to maintain the level of protection that we have had for the past several decades, thereby protecting our freshwater resources.” 

Jeremy Orr is a professor of law who teaches the water law course at MSU. He is also director of litigation and advocacy partnerships at Earthjustice. Contact: 

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court runs counter to more than 50 years of the well-established Clean Water Act law and the principles of protecting our most precious environmental resource — water. The court’s decision is not only disappointing, but it is also dangerous because it opens the door for the degradation and decimation of our wetlands and the watersheds that play a critical role in protecting human health, the environment and ecosystems throughout the country.” 

Robert Glandon is an instructor in the Charles Mott Department of Public Health within MSU’s College of Human Medicine. His interests include community and environmental health assessment and improvement. This includes examining crosscutting relationships among built environments, health risk behaviors, access to care, and health policy. Contact: 

“I know the Supreme Court recently limited the EPA’s authority to regulate wetlands and, earlier, greenhouse gas emissions. I assume related regulation and enforcement responsibilities would revert to individual states. Overall, the rulings would affect climate and human health and there will be disparate human health consequences — there always are,” Glandon said. 

“The question is what to do next. State public health responses will vary, and I do not know which states are ready to implement new environmental enforcement responsibilities. That is a key issue. I am interested to know if national, state and local public health organizations are ready to respond.” 

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