Biden admin vows to restore 8M acres of wetlands

By Miranda Willson | 04/23/2024 01:36 PM EDT

The new goal is part of a blitz of environmental actions the White House is announcing this week to coincide with Earth Day.

A yellow-headed blackbird perches in a wetland.

A yellow-headed blackbird perches in a wetland near Menoken, North Dakota. The Biden administration announced a plan to restore 8 million acres of wetlands over the next six years. Charlie Riedel/AP

The Biden administration announced a goal Tuesday to protect and restore 8 million acres of wetlands over the next six years in an effort to counter development pressures and recently weakened federal regulations.

The bold new target seeks to reverse the ongoing loss of U.S. wetlands, which help keep pollutants out of rivers and streams and act as a natural buffer against flooding. Over 60 percent of wetlands now lack protections under the Clean Water Act for the first time in decades after the Supreme Court curtailed the law’s scope last year.

In addition to wetlands, the administration committed to “reconnect, restore and protect” 100,000 miles of rivers and streams nationwide by 2030, including by removing impediments such as dams and by restoring stream banks experiencing erosion.


Announced during a White House water summit, the new goals are part of a blitz of environmental actions that the administration is laying out this week to coincide with Earth Day. They come as President Joe Biden is trying to boost support from environmentally conscious voters before the November election.

Administration officials described the freshwater protection goals as critical for ensuring Americans have access to clean water in light of the Sackett v. EPA Supreme Court ruling, which gutted the federal wetlands regulatory program.

“We are in a fight for clean water, but it’s a fight that we can win,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “More importantly, it’s a fight that we must win.”

Ten states, eight tribes and 24 cities and towns, as well as dozens of nongovernmental organizations and private companies, signed on as partners to work toward the freshwater restoration targets. The aim is to have other entities join the partnership, called the America the Beautiful Freshwater Challenge, administration officials said.

Environmental advocates praised the announcements, saying that the wetlands restoration commitment was sorely needed.

Earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the U.S. on net lost approximately 670,000 acres of vegetated wetlands between 2009 and 2019 — an area larger than the land mass of Rhode Island.

While the federal government has had an aspirational policy of “no net loss” of wetlands since the George H.W. Bush administration, restoring and protecting 8 million acres of wetlands amounts to a “net positive wetlands goal” for the first time, said Timothy Male, executive director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center. The organization is among the partners that signed on to the freshwater challenge.

“No net loss is one thing, but 8 million acres, if you were to play that out, absolutely overwhelms average losses in the country,” said Male, who served as associate director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration.

A ‘call to action’

Also Tuesday, the White House made available over $1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act to improve drinking water and sanitation projects in tribal communities.

The money will come from the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, which together signed a memorandum of understanding to speed up the delivery of water projects for tribes, the agencies said in a news release.

The funds will support enough projects to provide an additional 36,000 American Indian and Alaska Native households with access to sanitation services, said Benjamin Smith, deputy director of Indian Health Service. They will also help reduce health challenges in those communities tied to the lack of basic water infrastructure, Smith said.

So far, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington have committed to the new freshwater restoration challenge and partnership, officials said. Local government partners range from Detroit to Rochester, New York, to Tampa, Florida.

Other partners include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for American Progress, the retail company Patagonia, and companies that focus on wetlands restoration and mitigation. The Navajo Nation, the Yurok Tribe, the Gila River Indian Community and other tribes have also signed on.

In addition to preserving wetlands, rivers and streams, participants committed to protecting groundwater aquifers, addressing threats to endangered species and maintaining waterways that are safe for swimming and fishing, among other goals. They also agreed to “use all of the tools at their disposal to protect freshwater resources,” including through regulatory programs “when necessary.”

Administration officials said the partnerships were essential for fighting against what they described as legal and regulatory efforts to reduce water protections.

Issued last May, Sackett v. EPA was a victory for Michael and Chantell Sackett, two Idaho landowners at the center of the case. It was also a win for homebuilders, energy companies and agricultural groups, which have long argued that the federal government has regulated too many wetlands and infringed on private property rights.

In addition to the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property, the majority on the court concluded that isolated wetlands — those that are not directly connected to a lake, ocean, stream or other major body of water — do not fall under the Clean Water Act. Since then, states have taken various steps to either try to protect more wetlands or to scale back protections to align with those at the federal level.

Colorado and Illinois, for example, are among the states currently considering legislation to regulate wetlands no longer covered by federal law. North Carolina and Indiana, at the behest of Republican-controlled legislatures, have essentially moved in the opposite direction by reducing state wetlands protections.

“The Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA is the culmination of years of work to undermine federal Clean Water Act safeguards,” Mallory said. “But be clear-eyed: Those forces are now targeting state clean water and wetlands protections as well.”

Environmental advocates said the new goals could provide multiple benefits, including to endangered species that depend on wetlands and for preserving Americans’ drinking water supplies. Nicole Silk, global director of freshwater outcomes at the Nature Conservancy, said in an interview that they were “immensely achievable” as well.

“We often say we need freshwater, but now freshwater needs us,” Silk said. “That’s really the call to action that’s taking place.”