CARTERET COUNTY, N.C. — The 6,000-acre North River Wetlands Preserve in Carteret County near the coast of North Carolina is one of the largest wetland restoration projects in the country.
Around 25 years ago, a group of organizations bought the farmland and began restoring it to its original state.
Today, it’s full of wildlife.
“The best thing is not only the habitat here, but what it’s doing to the coastal waters,” said NC Coastal Federation Executive Director Todd Miller.
Wetlands are known as earth’s kidneys. They filter out pollutants from the waters that flow through them. And when heavy rains fall they serve as a sponge, trapping the water, helping avoid flooding in communities downstream.
But Miller is worried some North Carolina wetlands could be in jeopardy.
This summer the state’s General Assembly passed legislation limiting wetlands protections, paving the way for development, especially agriculture, in areas supporters say sometimes did not truly meet the definition of a wetland.
Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed the bill only to see his veto overridden, says about half of the state’s wetlands are affected.
“It felt like déjà vu. These were problems that we dealt with in the early 1980s when massive land clearing was going to convert wetlands to farmland and for development,” Miller said.
Supporters of the legislation say the concerns are overblown.
The legislation was introduced earlier this year and got a clear legal pathway when the U.S. Supreme Court made a controversial decision in May that will have impacts around the country.
The court, in a five to four opinion, said the Clean Water Act only protects wetlands connected to rivers and streams considered “relatively permanent” or “continuous." That paves the way for farmers and developers to dig up or fill millions of acres of wetlands.
Industry and farm groups praised the ruling, saying it’s a long time coming.
And it gave supporters of the North Carolina legislation a boost to say the wetlands shouldn’t get any more protection than the new federal rules. That’s something other states could decide to argue.
Miller said that definition of a federally protected wetland misses the mark.
“They’re all connected. They’re just not all connected by boats … many of our wetlands are just big sponges … it brings the amount of protection really to a narrow fringe of what existed prior,” Miller said.
On Tuesday, the Biden Administration weakened regulations that protect millions of acres of wetlands. The administration said it was forced to make the changes following the court’s decision limiting the federal government’s jurisdiction.
But that number has shrunk. According to one study, the lower 48 states lose 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands each year to things like development and sea level rise.
That equates to around seven football fields of wetland lost every hour, according to NOAA.
Mark Smith, the caretaker of the North River Wetlands Preserve in North Carolina said the restored wetland has resulted in the nearby North River becoming cleaner. It’s an example he said of the impact of wetlands.
“Without it we’re not going to survive. You got to have that water filter before it runs off into our estuaries and pollutes our birthplace for all the seafood we eat. We got to protect it,” Smith said.