Passed under President Nixon in 1972, the Clean Water Act is one of the most successful and popular environmental laws and gives the federal government authority over the “waters of the United States.” The Supreme Court’s ruling in a 2006 case calls into question the future of the Clean Water Act, and has very wide-reaching implications for both the environment and for the federal government’s power to enforce laws that protect our environment.
The recent Supreme Court ruling was spurred by two Michigan property-rights cases that sought to redefine how the Clean Water Act was interpreted and challenge the power and constitutionality of this important federal statute. John A. Rapanos faced steep criminal charges for filling in federally protected wetlands — without permission — in order to build a shopping center. In the second case, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to a couple who wanted to fill part of their property so they could develop condominiums.
At the core of these cases about “wetlands” — ecosystems essential for flood control, drinking water, agriculture, and wildlife — is also a key issue: Can the federal government pass and enforce laws? The cases raised the question whether Congress can pass a law to protect water that might be just within a single state. There is a lot at stake: thousands of miles of small streams and an estimated 20 million acres of wetlands. Because water in many states is connected, with almost every state downstream from another, federal oversight plays an important role in environmental protection.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court limited the scope of the Clean Water Act, but not as much as Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito would have wanted it to. The confusing ruling may lead to years of regulatory battles and court cases, and threatens the future of the Clean Water Act. For now, because of one vote by Justice Kennedy, the federal government can still regulate and protect our wetlands.
For more information see our fact sheet on environmental protection.