Since 1972, ever since Nixon, a Republican president, signed it into law, the Clean Water Act (CWA) has protected waterways in the USA. Under this law, the levels of pollutants discharged are regulated, ensuring a basic level of water quality.
As White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre says, the CWA is “the reason why America’s lakes today are swimmable, why we can fish in our streams and rivers, and why safe drinking water comes out of our taps.”
But last week, the US Supreme Court voted to shrink the protections enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by ruling in favour of a couple from Idaho whose building plans have been long inhibited by the CWA.
The Justices found that the EPA’s definition of wetland was “inconsistent” under the Clean Water Act. Previously, “navigable waters” were protected by the EPA, defined in US law as “waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including all waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide.”
Simplified, this means any body of water that you could drive a boat in, tide permitting, was protected by the EPA.
According to the case summary, in order for the Sacketts – the couple who brought up the case back in 2007 and that ended up now with the Supreme Court – to build on their land, they would have had to fill in “a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake.”
The Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in Sackett v. EPA will take our country backwards – placing our Nation’s wetlands, and the rivers, lakes, and ponds connected to them, at risk of pollution and destruction.
My team will work with the Department of Justice and relevant…
— President Biden (@POTUS) May 26, 2023
Favouring the Sacketts over the EPA, the majority conservative Court’s ruling now means that wetlands qualify only if “indistinguishable from waters of the United States”: According to the Court, there has got to be “continuous surface connection” between the contested body of water and a protected one for the contested one to also be protected.
Hours after the ruling, Karine Jean-Pierre said “the Court’s decision today aims to take our country backwards.”
What does this mean for US ecosystems?
Wetlands currently make up for 5.5% of land in the US, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. Whilst there are natural factors threatening these waterways, the EPA says that “the vast majority of wetland losses and gains over the last few centuries have occurred as a result of human activities.”
Humans impact these habitats by draining them or filling them in, usually to make space for agriculture or a new housing development in the case of the Sacketts.
Wetlands are also staggeringly beneficial to a wide variety of species – they are “comparable to rainforests and coral reefs” in terms of their productivity, says the EPA. A well-maintained waterway provides food to all manner of animals, from birds to fish, insects and reptiles.
Also important when it comes to regulating the watershed, wetlands provide protection from flooding because the soils and plants act “like sponges” – releasing excess water more slowly onto floodplains. This lowers the flood’s overall height and also limits erosion.
The EPA also says that waterways and wetlands store notable amounts of carbon in the soil and the plants that live there instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, meaning they have huge benefits when it comes to mitigating global warming.
The Supreme Court ruling, however, means that US waterways are set to decline in quality because it makes it much easier for individuals and companies to damage the land by filling in bodies of water or draining them for their own projects.
Speaking to CBS, Jon Devine, director of federal water policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, warned that narrowing the EPA’s authority over wetlands “could be catastrophic.”
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“Tens of millions of acres of wetlands that are currently protecting communities from flooding, helping to make sure that their drinking water supplies are cleaner, would be at risk of being filled in or polluted without any kind of environmental review beforehand,” he says.
Because waterways are so instrumental in maintaining America’s ecosystems, Devine called the ruling “death-by-a-million-cuts.”
The political problem
Sackett v EPA has been ongoing for 15 years: in a previous statement, they argued that EPA’s “bureaucrats used a made-up definition of ‘navigable waters’ to deny us the right to use our own property – a right that’s protected in the constitution.”
Bureaucracy has been demonised in this case by the conservative Justices because it values policy and regulations over efficiency. This “red tape” is seen by conservatives in America as violating their constitutional freedoms.
Too often are genuine issues in the USA co-opted by partisan politics. We saw it when wearing a mask during the COVID 19 pandemic became a political statement rather than a way of curbing infections and protecting the population.
One only has to look at the way in which the conservative Fox News covered the wetland ruling to see that, once again, their own political beliefs are much more important to them than safeguarding ecosystems.
This is the second year in a row that this Supreme Court has restricted the EPA’s ability to preserve the environment. In 2022, the court ruled that the EPA could no longer put state-level caps on carbon emissions under the 1970 Clean Air Act.
And now we are again seeing our environment and ecosystems suffer as a result of politicians failing to see that the issue is bigger than themselves. This ruling proves that any long term change in the climate will not only require cooperation from all, regardless of their political alignment, but also a complete and long overdue shift in attitude.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Everglades National Park, Florida. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.