5 things you need to know about the legal fight against the Clean Water Act
This month marks 50 years since Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972 to ensure our nation’s waters are swimmable, fishable, and safe to drink. Why did they do it? Many American rivers were so polluted they would burst into flames, including the Cuyahoga River, which caught fire in 1969, sparking the modern environmental movement.
Still, a US Supreme Court case could determine the effectiveness of this landmark law. The main question: what is the proper test to determine which wetlands merit Clean Water Act protection?
On October 3, the Court heard argument in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. A decision is expected later this year or early 2023.
The case stems from the Sackett family’s attempt to pour gravel and sand onto a residential lot in Idaho that contained a wetland. The EPA said they couldn’t because of its proximity to Priest Lake and ordered them to return the lot to its natural state, as mandated by the Clean Water Act. A 14-year legal battle ensued.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the Sacketts seek clarification on which wetlands are covered by the law. If the court sides with the Sacketts, who advocate a much narrower definition of waters that should be covered by the Clean Water Act, it could deny federal protections to more than half of all wetlands in the country.
The NPCA, along with groups representing millions of national park advocates, anglers, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, filed an amicus brief in June with representation from Kramer Levin Robbins Russell LLP, arguing that wetlands that contribute significantly to the quality of protected waters downstream should be included. in the protections of the Clean Water Act. They also argue that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law is erroneous.
Here are five takeaways from the Supreme Court case and its potential impact:
1. What we call our “US waters” can help protect our drinking water.
The Clean Water Act was enacted to restore and maintain the quality of the nation’s waters. In part, it regulates pollutant discharges into “navigable waters,” which are broadly defined as “the waters of the United States.” Determining which waters are United States waters determines what benefits from the protection of the Clean Water Act.
The original rule defining US water decades ago has been repeatedly revised with bipartisan support backed by science. The Obama administration clarified the definition, then the Trump administration significantly reduced it by removing protections for more than half of all wetlands. Under the Biden administration, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers are reviewing the rule again and are expected to reinstate clearer protections through an ongoing and transparent public process, since streams, wetlands, lakes and the country’s rivers are the source of drinking water for millions of people. of people.
2. A narrow interpretation of “wetlands” would remove protections for the majority of US wetlands.
If the Supreme Court agrees with the Sackett family’s narrow interpretation, its ruling would remove Clean Water Act protections for the majority of US wetlands.
Reducing the scope of the Clean Water Act would have devastating effects on national parks, rivers and streams, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities for millions of people.
The National Park Service oversees 150,000 miles of rivers and streams and an additional 4 million acres of lakes, oceans and other waterways across the country – from the trout streams of Yellowstone to the marshes of the Everglades. Park waters are connected to smaller rivers and wetlands upstream and are integral to the health of our parks and surrounding communities. Wildlife habitats and wider ecosystems also depend on it.
3. Wetlands serve as natural buffers.
Our waterways are all connected, and what pollutes one affects many. Wetlands drain into streams, which drain into rivers and lakes, including our Great Lakes — one of the planet’s greatest freshwater resources — and ultimately the ocean. These wetlands serve as natural buffers, filtering chemicals and toxins. Pollution from mining, development, manufacturing, and large operations flow into small waterways, eventually damaging the water.
Wetlands also provide economic benefits – in the form of essential flood protection, as they absorb and store flood waters. A single acre of wetlands can store approximately 1 million gallons of water, which is especially important as the climate crisis continues to devastate our parks and communities across the country.
For example, Indiana Dunes National Park is home to the Great Marsh – the largest inland wetland on the shore of Lake Michigan – as well as 350 species of birds and 90 endangered plant species. According to a report by NPS Hydrographic and Impairment Statistics, the park’s waters are already 69% degraded, in part due to nearby industrial activity. According to the petitioners’ proposed test, at least 39-56% of streams and 86% of wetlands in any of the park’s watersheds would be denied Clean Water Act protection, likely worsening the pollution and hydrological disturbances in park waters, including the Great Marsh. .
4. Americans care about clean water.
For more than 20 years, visitors to national parks have consistently ranked water quality or access to water as one of the top five most valued attributes when visiting national parks. And where these visitors go, they spend money.
Water supports an $887 billion outdoor recreation industry, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. This includes nearly $140 billion spent on kayaking, rafting, canoeing, scuba diving and other water and recreational activities, all of which take place in our parks.
Last year, 297 million park visitors spent an estimated $20.5 billion in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands. These expenditures supported 323,000 jobs, $14.6 billion in labor income and $42.5 billion in economic output in the national economy.
5. The Clean Water Act plays an important role in keeping our parks’ waterways clean.
More than half of the more than 420 national park sites have waterways that do not meet safe water quality standards for drinking, fishing, swimming and other activities. Not all national parks have waterways, but of the 356 parks that do, two-thirds are plagued by pollution.
Drinking water is a basic need. Without clean waterways, the visitor experience suffers and the health of the public is put at risk: from the availability of clean water to opportunities for recreation and viewing healthy wildlife. We need more, not less, protections for clean water.