Uncertainty Hovers on Clean Water Act’s 50th Anniversary

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President Joe Biden issued a proclamation on the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, encouraging people to protect their traditions and consider the role that clean water plays in Americans' lives.
President Joe Biden issued a proclamation on the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, encouraging people to protect their traditions and consider the role that clean water plays in Americans’ lives. File photo: Roberto La Rosa, Shutter Stock, licensed.

TALLAHASSEE, FL – The Clean Water Act turns 50 this week, but parts of it are being challenged in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, Sackett v. EPA, could allow factories, hog farms and wastewater plants to pollute waters in states that lack strong water-quality protections.

Jim Murphy, director of legal advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the case could result in a cascading effect across the country.

“Could potentially, depending on how the court rules, remove important federal protections from pollution and destruction for up to half of the nation’s wetlands and maybe 60 to 70% of the nation’s streams,” he said, “including many streams that could provide the source waters for people’s drinking supplies.”

A new report from the National Wildlife Federation said the case, if plaintiffs are successful, would be “disproportionately felt by low-income communities and communities of color that already have inadequate water and wastewater infrastructure and face greater flood risk.” Its progress report on Florida’s current water quality labels it “in need of improvement.”

Florida has implemented some of its own measures to protect water, including a controversial program that pays ranchers to retain runoff on their own land. Critics have said it amounts to “corporate welfare” because the ranchers get taxpayer money for doing very little.

Nationally, Murphy pointed to polls that show 75% of adults are in favor of seeing protections for more waterways, and want the Environmental Protection Agency to take the lead in protecting natural waterways.

“Again, these natural systems provide functions that are very, very hard to replace,” he said, “and very expensive to replace through engineering and other means.”

This 14-year legal battle has brought the Sacketts to the Supreme Court for the second time. Their first was in 2012, when they were granted the right to sue the EPA. A decision is expected in 2023.

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