News | January 1, 2022

Everything you need to know about the Clean Water Act

The Okefenokee swamp is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. (@ Julie Dermansky)

For 50 years, the Clean Water Act, a law passed by a bipartisan Congress in 1972, has been the central tool used to protect the clean water needed for our communities. When enforced, the Clean Water Act protects America’s families and communities by preventing unchecked pollution from contaminating our streams and rivers, including drinking water sources. Without its basic safeguards in place, the waters that 217 million people across America depend on for drinking water and use every day, and that support multi-billion-dollar outdoors, brewing, fisheries and tourism businesses, are at risk of pollution and destruction.

What is the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act contains several protections we need to ensure our nation’s water quality.

As the primary law that protects waterways from pollution and destruction, the Clean Water Act:

  • requires oversight of polluters that want to bulldoze protected waters of the United States, 
  • prohibits discharges of avoidable industrial pollution into waters,
  • imposes safe management practices on facilities that store oil and hazardous substances near waters, 
  • limits the application of sewage sludge when it could pollute waters, and
  • requires states to develop cleanup actions when protected waters become unsafe.  

How does the Clean Water Act work?

These and the Clean Water Act’s other protections apply to “waters of the United States”: the streams, wetlands, rivers, lakes, bays, and other waters that fit within that definition. The Clean Water Act protects our water thereby protecting families and communities across the country.

How effective is the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act provides the legal backbone for state and local environmental agencies and communities, including community groups represented by SELC, to keep our waters free of pollution and save beneficial wetlands from destruction. Although we still have more work to do, the Clean Water Act has dramatically improved our water quality. Simply put, protecting clean water protects our families and communities.

Clean Water Act controversy

Despite the fundamental necessity of clean water, the Trump administration gutted the protective reach of the Clean Water Act, which has kept harmful pollution from being dumped into our nation’s waters for 50 years. Under the Trump-era rollback of federal clean water protections, millions of stream miles and tens of millions of acres of wetlands , and important recreational lakes and drinking water reservoirs in the United States are at risk. Pollution into upstream waters spells trouble for everyone downstream. Nationwide, the removal of these protections puts at risk the drinking water sources for over 217 million people. 

The rule removed protections from upstream waters and smaller streams that feed our rivers; several public lakes including Lake Keowee, a drinking water reservoir for almost 400,000 people in South Carolina; and from wetlands that protect many Southern communities facing more frequent, intense rain events and flooding with climate change. Under the Trump rule, the Army Corps of Engineers removed protections from close to 600 acres of wetlands in the path of the massive Twin Pines mine on the doorstep of the Okefenokee Swamp and from about 200 acres of wetlands that absorb floodwaters in a flood prone area for a large development, Riverport, near the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

Fortunately, two federal courts found the Trump-era rule unlawful. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on a new rule to reinstate longstanding federal clean water protections.  . 

However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up a challenge to Clean Water Act protections that have been in place for 50 years in a case called “Sackett v. EPA.” A coalition of polluter and opponents of clean water in the case are asking the Court to go even farther than the harmful Trump rule, removing protections from even more waters and putting families and communities nationwide at risk. What these major polluters and other opponents of clean water are seeking would overturn long-standing Clean Water Act protections that safeguard the nation’s waterways, our families and communities against pollution; and ignore basic science of how polluting and destroying waterways upstream can harm waters downstream.