Individual liberties are often at odds with promoting the collective good. This issue has become all too familiar to Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic as we have debated whether and how much the government should constrain personal freedoms to protect the well-being of others. For decades, this same debate has played out in the environmental realm around the question of wetlands protection.
Under the Clean Water Act, any proposed development activities on or near wetlands must go through a federal permitting process. In some situations, regulating wetlands under the Clean Water Act restricts the freedoms of private landowners, who may not receive a permit to develop their land. This tension between private property rights and the public good has brought the Clean Water Act to the Supreme Court several times—in the latest case, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, an Idaho couple’s fight to build on their land has the potential to reshape national environmental policy.
So, should the government interfere with a private property owner’s right to build on wetlands? The answer to that question depends partly on your own moral philosophy and view on the role of government. But the answer also should be informed by the evidence on what developing wetlands means for the broader community’s well-being.
Wetlands provide a wide array of benefits to society, including flood mitigation, water purification, climate regulation, wildlife habitat, and recreation. Many of these services flow to others in the community; you don’t need to own wetlands to benefit from the clean water they produce, for example. And this effect is quantifiable: in a new study, my coauthor Charles Taylor of Columbia University and I find that wetland loss imposes a significant burden on surrounding communities. We estimate that converting one hectare of wetlands (roughly the size of 2.5 football fields) to developed land increases property damages from flooding by more than $12,000 per year. The vast majority of this cost is borne by downstream community members who ordinarily would benefit from a wetland’s ability to trap and slowly release water that would otherwise cause flooding. How big is this number? In our study, we calculate that the approximate value of US wetlands to society is $1.2–$2.9 trillion. And that’s just for flood mitigation value; that dollar figure doesn’t account for the many other environmental services that wetlands provide.
So, while landowners certainly have reasonable arguments for determining the use of their own property, the effect of their actions on their neighbors is no small potatoes. And the question over whose benefits take precedence is a hard one to answer, which explains why Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency is awaiting trial in the highest court in the land. But based on the new evidence we present in our study, the court should place significant consideration on how landowners’ rights may infringe on the rights of others.
But another solution is possible. Regulations like the Clean Water Act, which restrict the development of private lands, have an important role to play in conservation—but these types of policies are not the only tools we have. Communities need not get bogged down in the controversy between individual liberties and the collective public good—we can act now to identify the wetlands in our backyard that provide the greatest benefit at the lowest cost and put them in public trust. State parks, hunting reserves, and wildlife refuges can protect wetlands while also providing significant community benefits.
Our study results suggest that, for nearly half of all wetland area in the United States, the societal benefits from reduced flooding that arise within five years outweigh the one-time cost of buying up and conserving a wetland. If communities come together to invest in this type of green infrastructure, they are likely to see a quick return on their investment. If we protect wetlands, then wetlands are sure to pay us back by protecting us.
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The approximate value of US wetlands to society
This blog post is a lightly edited version of the original article, which was published in the Hill.