Robert Redford: Supreme Court should not dishonor 50th anniversary of Clean Water Act

SUNDANCE, Utah – As anyone across the American West will tell you, water is life. We can’t do without it, and neither can the crops, livestock, natural habitat and wildlife that make this region so essential to the country and our vision of who we are as American people.

We’ve been reminded of water’s centrality of late, because we no longer have enough of it. Much of the West is baking to chalk amid the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years, part of the widening scourge of climate change. The nation’s largest reservoirs are three-quarters empty. The Colorado River could soon run dry in places.

A resource this vital, and in dwindling supply, has to be protected. Since 1972, that’s been the job of the Clean Water Act, one of the most successful federal laws in history.

Lakes, rivers and species saved, but more must be done           

Since its enactment 50 years ago this Oct. 18, the Clean Water Act has provided the legal framework for safeguarding or restoring waterways nationwide, from Sitting Bull Creek to Lake Pontchartrain, improving, when not saving altogether, habitat for species from Virginia shellfish to Wisconsin brown trout.

Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, once so choked with industrial waste that it literally caught fire, is now considered safe for fishing. Tourists are watching dolphins in the waters around New York City, now cleaner than at any time since the Civil War.

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There’s far more work to be done, of course, to clean up and protect our rivers, wetlands, lakes and streams. The Clean Water Act, though, has changed the face of American waters – and we’re all the better for it.     

The last thing we need, in the West or anywhere else, is to weaken this foundational law.    

Frighteningly, that is exactly what polluters are trying to accomplish in a case scheduled before the Supreme Court on Monday. If they succeed, tens of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of streams could lose the federal protections required to keep them clean.

A case scheduled for the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2022, hinges on the question of whether the Clean Water Act protects wetlands, which feed into rivers, lakes and streams that feed the sources of clean drinking water for 1 in every 3 Americans.
A case scheduled for the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2022, hinges on the question of whether the Clean Water Act protects wetlands, which feed into rivers, lakes and streams that feed the sources of clean drinking water for 1 in every 3 Americans.

A case against the Clean Water Act, 15 years in the making

The case hinges on the question of whether the Clean Water Act protects wetlands, which feed into rivers, lakes and estuaries, and streams that are sometimes or ordinarily dry, as is the case for many across the American West. We must prevent the unregulated pollution and destruction of those wetlands and streams, of course, because you can’t protect a waterway without protecting the water that flows into it. That’s common sense.   

It’s also the law, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agencies that enforce the Clean Water Act.

Fifteen years ago, the EPA told an Idaho couple that they had violated the law by destroying wetlands that drain into Priest Lake, a 23,000-acre jewel set in one of the nation’s most majestic natural areas.

Michael and Chantell Sackett at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. A year later, the court unanimously agreed that they could immediately litigate their challenge to the EPA’s order in federal court. In a hearing on Oct. 3, 2022, the justices will decide whether an appeals court used the proper test to decide whether wetlands are “waters of the United States” for purposes of the Clean Water Act.
Michael and Chantell Sackett at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. A year later, the court unanimously agreed that they could immediately litigate their challenge to the EPA’s order in federal court. In a hearing on Oct. 3, 2022, the justices will decide whether an appeals court used the proper test to decide whether wetlands are “waters of the United States” for purposes of the Clean Water Act.

Instead of restoring the wetlands, as the EPA directed, the couple took the agency to court. Operators of an excavation and contracting business, they asserted the right to dump enough gravel and sand to fill up 400 pickups into wetlands a stone’s throw from the lake.

Lower courts upheld the EPA’s action. Now the couple, Michael and Chantell Sackett, have appealed to the Supreme Court. They’re hardly acting alone.

Property developers, industry groups vs. scientists, farmers, water agencies

The Sacketts are represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit law firm that works to roll back the commonsense safeguards we all depend on to protect the environment and public health. Lining up on their side is a rogue’s gallery of industry groups equally devoted to putting polluter profits ahead of clean water: the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas lobbying group; the Koch Industries-backed Americans for Prosperity; the National Mining Association; and, naturally, the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association.

These and a group of conservative members of Congress are using the Sackett case to argue before the court that property developers and polluting industries should be free to destroy wetlands, which protect communities from flooding and filter pollutants from runoff, and streams that feed the sources of clean drinking water for 1 in every 3 Americans.

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Arguing in support of clean water protections are the experts who understand the issue best. Among them: renowned scientists; representatives for more than 350 municipal clean water agencies; business, farming and ranching interests; a coalition of 50 nonprofit Waterkeeper groups that defend waters from the Puget Sound to Tampa Bay; and nearly 20 federally recognized tribes that have depended, for thousands of years, on healthy water systems from Lake Superior to the Cimarron River.

We can only hope their insights prevail. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday.

Protecting water means protecting its source           

In a ruling this summer, the court’s conservative majority narrowed the EPA’s options for limiting climate-wrecking carbon pollution from the nation’s single largest industrial source – dirty power plants that burn gas and coal. Now clean water’s about to go on trial. 

Robert Redford is a longtime environmentalist and trustee of the National Resources Defense Council since 1975.
Robert Redford is a longtime environmentalist and trustee of the National Resources Defense Council since 1975.

In the American West, as everywhere, water is life itself. Protecting clean water means protecting its source, including the natural wetlands and rain-dependent streams that drain into rivers and lakes. As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we should honor the progress that law has delivered, not weaken it to appease big polluters.

Robert Redford is a director, actor, activist and trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clean Water Act: Supreme Court should protect resource, not destroy it