News | August 2, 2022

SELC champions clean water at US Supreme Court

A Virginia wetland.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing more than 110 environmental and community organizations, and joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold longstanding federal clean water protections. The case before the court, Sackett v. EPA, was brought by developers who, along with many industrial polluters, are asking the court to overturn decades of consistent practice and drastically cut the scope of the Clean Water Act. This is the bedrock law that protects families and communities across the country by preventing unchecked industrial pollution from contaminating our waterways and drinking water sources. 

There is a lot at stake in this case for our work to protect clean water. Our opponents want to rewrite the Clean Water Act to cut out protections for huge swaths of our precious water resources. Essential tributaries and wetlands that feed our rivers and help the Southeast cope with pollution and flooding from increasingly severe hurricanes would be cut out of the act. Meanwhile, in arid Western states like New Mexico, 90% or more of waterways could be denied federal clean water protections.

A bipartisan Congress put these federal clean water protections in place, and decades of Supreme Court decisions confirm their broad scope. Polluters are now seeking to undo decades of progress—under administrations of both parties—to allow millions of miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands to be polluted and paved over.

Kelly Moser, leader of SELC’s Clean Water Defense Initiative

In our brief, we explained to the Supreme Court how millions of acres of wetlands and millions of miles of streams that are key to the health of our nation’s waters would be left open to destruction if the opponents of clean water get their way. That includes wetlands that help control floodwaters and filter pollution near the famed Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Without the Act’s protections, those wetlands would be turned into toxic waste disposal pits by a planned mining protect, degrading the Okefenokee and downstream waterways. 

Our friend-of-the-court brief was joined by many other voices. Among them:  

  • Numerous tribes explained how federal clean water protections shield them from upstream pollution and safeguard their treaty rights to hunt and fish.  
  • Craft brewers, farmers, fly fishing outfitters, and other outdoor recreation groups from around the country told the court how their businesses cannot succeed without clean, healthy water to sustain them;  
  • Scientists detailed how the wetlands and streams threatened in the case are vital to protecting the health of downstream rivers and lakes.  
  • State water managers described how they rely on federal protections for these wetlands and streams to help control flooding and pollution.  
  • Former EPA administrators from both parties recounted how they implemented the Clean Water Act’s broad protections for decades, while  
  • Members of Congress pointed out that these protections fulfill Congress’s clear mandate in the act to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.  

Those longstanding protections now face a grave threat. We’ll be watching closely when the case is argued on Oct. 3, and no matter what happens, we will continue doing our utmost to protect the clean water we all depend on.