Fighting for 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 have worked to restrict the reach of the Clean Water Act, which has kept our wetlands safe and harmful pollution from being dumped into our nation’s waters for 50 years. This federal law is a central tool used by state and local governments to protect clean water.  In 2020, the Trump administration 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 critical upstream waters and millions of acres of wetlands

A five-justice majority of the Supreme Court has now gone even further than the Trump-era rule. In its May 2023 decision in Sackett v. EPA, the Court dramatically restricted the government’s ability to protect wetlands that shield families and communities from 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 and joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, had urged the 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 and wetlands at risk

Pollution into upstream waters spells trouble for everyone downstream. The Supreme Court’s Sackett decision jeopardizes more than half of the nation’s vital wetlands that protect 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. In the South, the removal of these protections threatens the drinking water sources for over 35 million people, or three out of four Southerners.

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 under the Sackett decision. 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.

Fight to protect clean water

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 communities across the South, are fighting to strengthen Clean Water Act protections that make dumping toxic pollution into our waters illegal. We are also working to ensure the federal, state, and local authorities use all of the tools available to keep our waterways 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 defend the streams, rivers, and wetlands we hold dear.