We drink water these days mostly after it’s been spit out of a refrigerator dispenser or squirted out of a disposable plastic bottle. It’s hard, very hard to remember that the same water – every molecule of it – comes from the streams, swamps and other assorted waterways outside our sealed windows.
These waters are by no means as clean and insulated as our plastic bottles. In fact, 50 years ago many were sinking into an industrial stew, fueled by the post-World War II economic boom. Suburban development was also taking its toll. In just two decades after the war, 7.6 million acres of wetlands – an area roughly the size of Maryland – were destroyed in the lower 48 states. Toxic waste and sewage were dumped, untreated, into the nearest creek. A series of high profile river fires — yes, rivers on fire — helped push Congress into action.
Passed with broad bipartisan support exactly 50 years ago this week, few laws have been as transformative to the nation’s quality of life as the Clean Water Act. The purpose of the law was nothing less than “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”. To accomplish this goal, Congress created a cooperative federal structure that gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broad authority to protect important waters throughout the watershed.
While its implementation has certainly encountered obstacles, it is difficult to overstate the continued importance of the protection of the Clean Water Act. The law, according to new report of my organization, the National Wildlife Federation, has helped policymakers limit pollution, prosecute polluters, and fund restoration efforts. Today, its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Program alone prevents 700 billion pounds of pollutants from entering our waters each year. About 200,000 “point-in-time” polluters – including sewage treatment facilities, paper mills, oil refineries, indoor pig farms and some construction sites – are currently regulated by law.
Today, at a particularly cruel time, precisely on the 50th anniversary of the law, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that could paralyze it. In Sackett v EPA – an already historic occasion as Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s first case – a radical clean water opponent is seeking to strip the law’s longstanding protections for about half of the nation’s waterways and wetlands .
What is at stake is the integrity – and in many cases the very existence – of waterways and wetlands that control floods, recharge waters during drought, filter pollution and to provide habitat. These waterways are the kidneys and sponges of great rivers and lakes, protecting the health and safety of the communities that depend on these waters.
With climate change fueling more intense storms, longer and deeper droughts, and temperatures that catalyze harmful algal growth and exacerbate pollution, the functions performed by healthy natural water systems are all the more critical.
If the plaintiffs are successful, it will be open season for unregulated federal pollution and the destruction of many of our most vulnerable waters. The results would be catastrophic. Drinking water supplies for millions of Americans could be rendered unsafe. At least half of the country’s flood-absorbing wetlands are at risk of being filled in and paved over. Upstream streams that store and filter water could disappear from the landscape, worsening droughts and water quality.
These impacts will hit frontline communities the hardest. Decades of underinvestment in clean water and proper waste treatment means communities that have already historically faced a disproportionate share of flooding and water pollution will have to bear the brunt of this decision.
Clearly, the Supreme Court must honor Congress’s intent to protect the drinking water supply of hundreds of millions of Americans. But States must also prepare for the worst. If federal protections are removed from waterways and wetlands, state agencies will have to step in and protect what remains of our waters.
If we don’t, the degradation of the landscape outside our window will not only destroy already fragile habitats, it will pollute drinking water and flood the homes of the most vulnerable Americans. After 50 years of revitalization and an era of unfolding climate crisis, we cannot go back to a century where sewage and asphalt killed our most vital waters.
Jim Murphy is the Director of Legal Advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, where he coordinates legal advocacy in the federation’s national programs with a focus on clean water and renewable energy. He has worked on the implementation of the Clean Water Act for more than two decades and has represented environmental organizations in several landmark cases before the United States Supreme Court and federal courts.