Rolling Back the Tide: Supreme Court Ruling Threatens Waterway Protections

In a move that could drastically impact the health of America’s waterways, the U.S. Supreme Court has scaled back the reach of a pivotal law designed to shield our waters from pollution. The court sided with an Idaho couple who have been engaged in an extensive legal battle to build a house on wetlands near Priest Lake, one of the state’s largest bodies of water.

This decision by the conservative-leaning court declared that the Clean Water Act, an essential piece of legislation enacted half a century ago to thwart pollution from contaminating rivers, streams, and lakes, should not have been used to prevent the construction of the wetland.

In response to the ruling, President Joe Biden emphasized that this decision jeopardizes the sources of clean water that countless American families, farmers, and businesses rely on. The President vowed that his administration would leverage every legal tool at its disposal to safeguard the nation’s waters.

Environmental group Earthjustice, a critic of the case reaching the Supreme Court, warns that half of all wetlands in the contiguous U.S. could now lose their protections under the Clean Water Act. These ecosystems are not only crucial as habitats for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife, but also serve as natural purifiers of water.

Five justices—Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett—agreed that the Clean Water Act only shields “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own rights.”

Environmental advocates see this verdict as the latest in a series of blows to environmental regulations dealt by the Supreme Court. These critics accuse the court, Republican-led states, and industry interests of undermining foundational protections for nature in the U.S.

This ruling essentially revises the definition of “navigable waters” under the Act, determining whether wetlands are federally protected. The court’s decision faced backlash from the liberal wing of the court, with Justice Elena Kagan arguing that the majority has essentially crowned itself “the national decision maker on environmental policy.”

Even conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the liberal justices in cautioning that the decision will result in previously regulated wetlands losing their protections under the Clean Water Act, potentially having significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the U.S.

Conservation groups have reacted with dismay to the ruling. Jim Murphy, director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, urged both Congress and state governments to act to protect our threatened waters and the communities that depend on them.

The ruling is the culmination of a 15-year legal struggle involving Michael and Chantell Sackett, who view the case as a gross government attack on their property rights. The Supreme Court has now concurred with the Sacketts, possibly narrowing the definition of what is considered navigable water and federally protected.

Following the ruling, the EPA administrator, Michael Regan, voiced concern that the decision “erodes longstanding clean water protections.” He added that the agency would contemplate its next steps to protect American waterways. Regan reminded us of the progress we have made over the past 50 years, transforming polluted rivers into vibrant communities, and stressed that a commonsense and science-based definition of ‘waters of the United States’ is essential for preserving our nation’s waters for future generations.