Defending federal clean water protections

Water is a way of life in the South

We are leading the charge to defend national 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.

Removal of federal clean water protections

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. This national law is a central tool used by state and local governments to protect clean water. Industrial polluters want to do away with those protections. In 2020, the Trump-era EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalized a rule 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

No administration can allow the interests of industrial polluters to trump our nation’s Clean Water Act or the safety of our families and communities. Every day until the Biden administration restores strong clean water protections, more streams, wetlands, lakes, and drinking water sources—protected under every other administration—can be destroyed.

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

Waterways now at risk

Under the rollback of federal clean water protections, thousands of stream miles and hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in the United States are at risk. Pollution into upstream waters spells trouble for everyone downstream. In the South, the removal of these protections puts at risk the drinking water sources for over 35 million people, or three out of four Southerners. 

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 this rule, the Army Corps of Engineers removed protections from about 400 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.

Efforts to restore 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 against this dangerous rollback to make sure that dumping toxic pollution into our waters stays illegal, and our waterways have all necessary protections to keep them clean and safe for our families and communities who rely on them. 

For the past two years, SELC has been challenging in federal court the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ rollbacks of Clean Water Act protections on behalf of 14 conservation groups. 

Recently, the EPA announced that it plans to repeal and replace the prior administration’s harmful, destructive rule that removed federal Clean Water Act protections against pollution and destruction from many waterways. But the agency did not immediately reverse that rule so harms to our waters could continue. 

SELC will continue to fight for the restoration of federal 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 these threats to the streams, wetlands, and lakes we hold dear and fight to restore strong clean water protections.