Defending clean water protections

Clean water is a way of life in the South

We are leading the charge to preserve clean water protections that are now under attack. Clean water is fundamental to the South’s way of life. Every day, our families count on clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Our farmers depend on clean water. Our local businesses rely on clean water—from our local breweries and restaurants to tourism, fishing, hunting, and outdoor outfitters. The health of our waters, families, and communities are tied together throughout the South.

Attacks on Clean Water Act protections

Despite the fundamental necessity of clean water, industrial polluters and other opponents of strong clean water protections want to restrict the reach of the Clean Water Act, which has kept harmful pollution from being dumped into our nation’s waters for 50 years. This national law is a central tool used by state and local governments to protect clean water.  In 2020, the Trump-era EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalized a rule, which was subsequently vacated, to severely limit what waters are protected as “Waters of the United States” and remove federal protection from a host of critical upstream waters, tributaries, and millions of acres of wetlands

Going even further than that rule in an opinion issued on May 25, 2023 in Sackett v. EPA, five Supreme Court Justices, led by Justice Alito, severely restricted the government’s ability to protect wetlands that shield families and communities form storms and damaging floods, improve water quality, shelter wildlife, and feed our fisheries. The Southern Environmental law Center, representing more than 110 environmental and community organizations, joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, had urged the U. S. Supreme Court to uphold longstanding federal clean water protections.

Communities need clean water protections that reliably safeguard our streams, wetlands, and drinking water sources, as well as fisheries, wildlife, and people from pollution.

Kelly Moser, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s Clean Water Program

Clean water & waterways at risk

Under the Trump administration’s rollback of federal clean water protections, millions of stream miles, tens of millions of wetland acres, and important recreational lakes and drinking water reservoirs in the United States were excluded from the Clean Water Act’s safeguards. Pollution into upstream waters spells trouble for everyone downstream. In the South, the removal of these protections put at risk the drinking water sources for over 35 million people, or three out of four Southerners. Under the now vacated rule, the Army Corps of Engineers removed protections from nearly 600 acres of wetlands in the path of the massive Twin Pines Minerals strip mine on the doorstep of the Okefenokee Swamp.

In a gift to industrial polluters and other opponents of clean water, a majority of the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of Clean Water Act protections even further , jeopardizing more than half of the nation’s vital wetlands that protect many Southern communities facing more frequent, intense rain events and flooding with climate change. The decision also puts at risk the majority of streams that flow into our rivers.  

Shortly after the Supreme Court decided Sackett v. EPA, the North Carolina legislature passed a law preventing the state from protecting wetlands beyond the significantly narrowed scope of federal protections. The legislature’s move leaves millions of acres of North Carolina’s wetlands at risk for pollution and destruction, its people more exposed to flooding and contaminated water, and fisheries and hunting in jeopardy.

Clean water initiative to preserve water protections

The best way to protect clean water is to stop harmful pollution at its source, before it reaches our streams, wetlands, and drinking water reservoirs. We and our partners, along with citizens across the South, are fighting to preserve longstanding Clean Water Act protections that make dumping toxic pollution into our waters illegal and provide our waterways with all necessary protections to keep them clean and safe for our families and communities who rely on them. 

SELC will continue to fight for clean water protections that have allowed economic prosperity and environmental protection to go hand in hand over the last 50 years. Together, those of us who love this region we call home will beat back threats to the streams, wetlands, and lakes we hold dear and fight to preserve strong clean water protections.