Efforts to protect wetlands boosted by court decision

The S.C. Supreme Court has delivered another key victory in the fight to protect the state's freshwater wetlands.

The court ruled Monday that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has the authority to determine what happens to these wetlands, whether or not they fall under federal review. It also ruled that a private person or group can bring a lawsuit if they observe violations of the law. The lawsuit in this case was filed by the Georgetown County League of Women Voters.

For the past decade, efforts to protect isolated freshwater wetlands have been in murky territory. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that wetlands not connected to navigable waterways did not fall under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Clean Water Act. The corps' designation of an area as a wetland had been a starting point for state regulation.

But in the ruling Monday and a separate ruling in February 2010, the state Supreme Court states that DHEC has the authority to regulate these wetlands regardless of their standing under federal law.

"(The U.S. Supreme Court decision) holds that the corps may not regulate isolated wetlands, but has no impact on DHEC's ability, as a state agency, to do so," the court states.

In the 2010 ruling, it reaffirmed the state agency's authority in the eight coastal counties under the Coastal Zone Management Plan. In Monday's ruling, it set out the state's authority under the Pollution Control Act, ensuring these important wetlands are protected across the state.

South Carolina has an estimated 300,000 acres of isolated wetlands. About 200,000 of those acres are in the eight-county coastal plain, with about 16,000 acres in Beaufort County.

Neither of the state Supreme Court decisions prohibits filling wetlands, but they do make it clear that a permit must be obtained before it can be done. The case decided Monday hinged on filling 0.19 of an acre of wetlands on a 0.33-acre lot. The 2010 case involved filling 32 acres in a 62-acre tract.

The coastal management plan lays out why these wetlands should be protected. They provide critical habitat for wildlife and plant species, help prevent pollutants from reaching our waterways, prevent flooding and help recharge our aquifers.

We can see how important it is every time an area floods because the water can't be absorbed into the ground. We pay for our failure to preserve wetlands with expensive stormwater control systems that don't do nearly as good a job as nature does.

We all benefit from these decisions.