New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo by Hannah Mico.
 In Urgent Issues, Water law, Water policy, Water Quality

Quite a Year for the Clean Water Act

Every year, around the time of the Clean Water Act’s anniversary, we like to reflect on our nation’s most fundamental clean water law and showcase a few of the many ways water advocates have used the Act to improve the health of their waterways. Coming off of the major 50th anniversary milestone, this 51st year proved to be one for the books. We’ve seen a devastating Supreme Court ruling, new rules published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Act used to protect local waters, and through it all – a never wavering community of clean water advocates raising their voices for their rivers and streams.

A Year of New Rules

Waters of the United States

Just last month the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published a final rule to amend the definition of “waters of the United States” following a devastating Supreme Court decision in the Sackett vs. EPA case. The rule drastically narrows Clean Water Act protections for wetlands, to only those that have a continuous surface connection to traditional navigable waters, and is the largest rollback in clean water protections our county has ever seen. The likely impact is that more than half of our nation’s remaining wetlands are now unprotected from destruction and pollution, which is ever more critical in the face of a changing climate.

Not only is federal-level advocacy important to right the wrongs of this new rule, state-level advocacy is just as important. Hear more from Julian Gonzalez, River Network Board member, about the importance of improving state policy in the absence of federal protections.

Section 404: Tribal and State Program Regulations

In July, the EPA published a new rule under Section 404 of the CWA, often referred to as the Dredge and Fill Permit program. Under this program, the U.S. Army Corps (typically) issues permits to allow dredging and filling activities that put dirt, mud, or other materials into streams or wetlands, for example when developing land for a new shopping center, building new bridges or dams, mining activities, or constructing oil and gas pipelines that impact waters of the US. The new EPA rule lays out how states can take over this permitting program, reducing the federal oversight and potentially leading to the lowering of protections for streams and wetlands.

Section 401: Water Quality Certification

In September, the EPA released the Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification Improvement Rule, reversing the rollbacks implemented under the Trump administration that limited States’ and Tribes’ power to review federally approved projects. This new rule restores States’ and Tribes’ authority to review these projects and, if needed, impose limits on projects that will have harmful impacts to the surrounding waters.

Yet Still, a Year of Progress

Even with a year full of changes and major losses to protections, advocates across the country continue to use the fundamental tools of the Clean Water Act to make progress.

A New Year

On this 51st anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we gear up for undoubtedly a new year of hurdles, court cases, and damaging interpretations of the law. Our vigilance as clean water and community advocates is more important than ever to stop further roll-backs and restore the protections that our rivers and streams deserve.

To learn more about the Clean Water Act or brush up on your knowledge, take River Network’s Clean Water Act Self-Paced Training Series, based on our Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual. Here you will learn the ins-and-outs of the Act, how your state or Tribe implements its programs, and how you can take action. You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with others doing the work through discussion threads.

Sign-up for our Monthly Water Policy Update & Exchange call hosted by River Network, Earthjustice, Clean Water for All, and Clean Water Network. The calls are a great space for advocates to learn about the latest federal policy updates and to hear from advocates across the country working to protect waters at the state and local level.

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