Supreme Court ruling sets the stage for Clean Water Act showdown

Canoeing on Alabama's Cahaba River. (© Beth Young)

One of the most intense environmental threats expected in 2018 will be the Trump administration's campaign to attack the Clean Water Act, arguably the country's most successful environmental protection for nearly 50 years.

The administration's first blow against the Clean Water Act has been proposing a scheme to strike down an existing rule that clarifies which waterways are covered by this protection, laying the groundwork for a new push by opponents to severely limit the scope of the law. But that strategy forward was both narrowed and muddied by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week.

The court held that challenges to the Clean Water Rule and similar regulations must first be filed in federal district courts, the lowest level of federal courts. Before the Supreme Court’s decision, some courts had held that such rules could be challenged in federal appellate courts, the middle level of federal courts. The court reversed those orders.

The court’s decision means that the existing hold on implementing the updated Clean Water Rule, which was imposed by an appellate court, will go away. It also means that earlier challenges to the rule, filed in district courts in North Dakota, Washington, Texas, and Georgia, could come back to life. Barring a nationwide injunction from one of those courts, or action by the Trump administration, the Clean Water Rule will go back into effect in most of the country.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is poised to finalize a new rule suspending the updated Clean Water Rule for two years. SELC intends to challenge this so-called “Suspension Rule,” which is repeal by another name, in a district court.

“Together, those of us who love this region we call home will beat back these threats to the streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans we hold dear,” said Blan Holman, Managing Attorney in SELC’s Charleston office.

Repeal of the Clean Water Rule also threatens our drinking water, as its protections cover sources for nearly 20 million people’s taps in the Southeast.

More broadly, the Clean Water Rule has been central to the environmental standards that have allowed economic prosperity and environmental protection to go hand in hand over the last 50 years. Now is not the time to turn back the clock on clean water.

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