A Narrow Reading of the Clean Water Act by the Supreme Court Would Endanger Us All

On October 3rd, the Supreme Court heard the case of Sackett v. EPA, focused on deciding which types of waterways deserve protection under the Clean Water Act. Federal safeguards under the Clean Water Act for the rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are critical to ensuring our water is safe for drinking, recreational activities, sustenance, as well as for our local seafood and recreational businesses that depend on the safety of our waters to thrive. The Sacketts argue that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may only regulate “navigable” waters connected by surface water. This antiquated view goes against the scientific fact that all waters in a drainage basin are connected, even if only underground.

The Sacketts are backed by big polluters like the oil and gas industry and by the Pacific Legal Foundation, an extreme anti-regulatory organization seeking to dismantle protections for clean water. The EPA has suggested that federal efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay “would be fundamentally incomplete and ineffectual if polluters could dump fill into the interconnected network of adjacent wetlands in the same watershed.” If wetlands and other waterways are no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, we can expect unfettered dumping of pollution and waste into wetlands, jeopardizing the health of our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. This is why Waterkeepers Chesapeake joined an amicus brief with Waterkeeper Alliance and 48 other Waterkeepers to defend the Clean Water Act.

The 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act could not have come at a more decisive time. Across our region, Waterkeepers and Riverkeepers have used the safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act to prevent destruction of our wetlands in order to further protect our watershed. Wetlands act as natural filters, protecting groundwater and downstream waters by absorbing and cleansing polluted runoff through a complex system of physical, chemical, and biological processes before it enters our waterways. Wetlands also act as carbon sinks that are even more effective than forests. In addition, wetlands within the Chesapeake Bay watershed provide essential habitat for aquatic wildlife that support our region’s seafood industry and outdoor recreation and tourism sectors. Protecting wetlands is more important now than ever given that they are being destroyed at a fast rate because of more frequent and intense storms and sea level rise.

In the unfortunate event that the Supreme Court decides against the Clean Water Act’s protections applying to our wetlands, the state of Maryland does still have some state-level wetlands regulations, as does Virginia under its Water Protection Program. Unfortunately, without the protection on the federal level by the Clean Water Act, as well as state protections having limited enforcement, this leaves the crucial protections provided by our wetlands at risk of being eliminated.

At Waterkeepers Chesapeake,  we believe that access to clean water is a fundamental human right – regardless of anyone’s race, income, or zip code. Our belief in environmental justice is interconnected with the fundamental human right to water and that it is vitally important to publicly express discontent at the Supreme Court potentially deciding to significantly weaken the Clean Water Act. With the threat of climate change impacting our Chesapeake Bay watershed and the impacts of poorly regulated industry on our most precious resource, bold action is urgently needed. The Supreme Court should not endanger clean water by allowing mining corporations, developers, the oil and gas industry, and other polluters to write their own rules.