Home Idaho couple challenges Clean Water Act: Case could narrow 50-year-old protections

Idaho couple challenges Clean Water Act: Case could narrow 50-year-old protections

Rebecca Barnabi
tap water
(© Brian Jackson – stock.abobe.com)

After 50 years of revitalization of the nation’s drinking water, one of the United States’ most precious resources is at risk.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that would severely curtail the reach of longstanding protections for half of the nation’s drinking water, streams and wetlands.

In an Oct. 3 article, The Washington Post reported that the Supreme Court is considering narrowing protections set forth in the Clean Water Act. In Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, the question is how to determine how far from the water’s edge the Clean Water Act applies.

After approval 10 years ago to build one of the largest homes in Idaho 300 feet from Priest Lake, Michael and Chantell Sackett are back in court. Wetlands are on the couple’s 0.63-acre lot, and subjected to the Clean Water Act. Fifteen years ago, the EPA at first put the home construction project on hold. Now the couple is requesting the Supreme Court narrow the definition of “water of the United States.”

According to the Post article, the Biden administration and environmental groups are concerned that narrowing the definition could narrow the reach of the law.

In 1972, amendments were made which created the Clean Water Act. The legislation established the nation’s basic structure for regulating pollutant discharge into waterways; gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to implement pollution control programs; maintained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters; made it a crime for any person to discharge pollutants into navigable waters unless authorized by permit under provisions; funded the construction of sewage treatment plants; and recognized the need for planning to address critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution.

According to a press release, the legislation was passed on Oct. 18, 1972 in response to the post-war proliferation of untreated sewage and industrial discharge in waterways. The law enabled lawmakers to limit pollution, prosecute polluters and fund restoration efforts.

Undrinkable water is nothing new in the media: Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, flood-prone wards of Houston.

“For 50 years, the Clean Water Act has helped communities protect streams that provide safe drinking water, wetlands that offer essential flood protection, and habitats that sustain our wildlife heritage,” Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in the press release. “The Supreme Court should uphold the rulings of both the 9th Circuit and the Idaho District Court and honor the intent of Congress to protect the drinking water supplies for hundreds of millions of Americans.”

The Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program prevents 700 billion pounds of pollutants from entering American waters every year. Approximately 200,000 “point source” polluters, such as sewage treatment facilities, paper mills, petroleum refineries, indoor hog farms and certain construction sites, are regulated under the law.

“Few laws have been as transformative to the nation’s quality of life as the Clean Water Act,” Jim Murphy, Director of Legal Advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, said in the press release. “The waterways that could lose protection are the kidneys and sponges of larger rivers and lakes, safeguarding the health and safety of millions of Americans. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of polluters, state and local agencies must step in to ensure our drinking water supplies, flood protection, and critical habitats are secure for future generations.

The press release stated that a Morning Consult poll for the Walton Family Foundation found that 75 percent of adults want more protection of waterways. Four in five adults want the EPA to continue to lead the nation in protecting drinking water.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.