The Supreme Court today will hear arguments as to whether the most extreme property-rights absolutists can essentially nullify the Clean Water Act and be allowed to destroy wetlands in the name of commerce. The two separate cases involve Michigan developers John Rapanos and Keith Carabell: Rapanos was brought up on criminal charges when he illegally started filling in wetlands on his Michigan farm; Carabell wants to develop a parcel containing wetlands, and has been denied a permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Lawyers for both landowners argue that because the wetlands in question aren't connected to any "navigable" waterway, they aren't subject to the Clean Water Act.
But scientists and environmentalists argue that basic hydrology says that almost every wetland connects to another water source, sometimes a drinking water source, and every dry river runs wet underground on its way to some larger body of water.
The decision could have consequences locally in several battles over waterways and wetlands, including the upper reaches of the Santa Clara River. But what's most interesting to me is how different media outlets around the country are interpreting the story differently. To wit:
NPR's Morning Edition states plainly that:
The Supreme Court hears arguments on Tuesday in two cases that could dramatically limit the reach of the Clean Water Act.
But the Detroit News begins its story:
Two Michigan cases being heard before the U.S. Supreme Court today will test how far the federal government can extend its authority over privately owned land. The outcome should be of interest to anyone who buys a piece of property with the reasonable expectation that they might someday actually use that property.
And according to the Tucson Citizen:
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide today whether federal regulators overstepped their constitutional bounds by enforcing clean-water laws in areas where there's barely any water to protect.
On the other hand, says the St. Petersburg Times in Florida:
Two cases that could have major implications for Florida's vanishing wetlands will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court today.
Both out of Michigan, the cases focus on how much power regulators have to protect wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act.
The position of the two Michigan developers, says the Tucson paper, is "backed by a coalition of home builders, farmers and Western water providers, including the Central Arizona Project."
But in Florida, between 1999 and 2003, reports the St. Petersburg Times, "[the corps] approved more than 12,000 permits to wipe out wetlands and rejected only one."
Last year, after the St. Petersburg Times questioned Corps officials about their oversight of wetland construction, the Corps rejected six permits-the most in more than a decade.
A Times analysis of satellite imagery found that in the past 15 years Florida lost 84,000 acres of wetlands to development, even though federal policy says there should be no net loss of wetlands.
I could go back and forth like this all day. It's fascinating: One state's boon is another state's disaster, and it doesn't much matter whether that state is red or blue: If you've seen what happens when your swamps disappear, as they have in Florida, you know why it's important to protect them. In fact, a New York Times' editorial suggest that nothing less than our very civilization is at stake:
These cases are an important test of the legal philosophy of John Roberts Jr., the new chief justice, and Samuel Alito Jr., the new associate justice. If they take a hard-line states' rights stance, it will be a sign that they agree with ultraconservatives who want to restrict Congress's power to regulate critical national matters like environmental protection, public health and workplace safety.
Unlike our own Southern California Metropolitan Water District, which sides with the developers, I agree.
I was encouraged by yesterday's decision to allow the UDV to legally use ayahuasca in their religious ceremonies (I can personally attest that the "hallucinogenic tea," as it's described, has no future as a recreational drug). But I wonder: Does a reasonable drug policy ruling signal a libertarian court? Both developers in the Michigan cases are backed by wacko libertarian think tanks such as the Pacific Legal Foundation, which denies climate change and advocates for the return of DDT. If the court decides in their favor, is it the beginning of the end for the laws that protect clean air and water against rampant development?
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