Kentucky environmental advocate decries SCOTUS verdict narrowing Clean Water Act protections
A Kentucky environmental advocate is concerned about the health of the state’s waterways in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision announced Thursday that reduced the reach of federal clean water protections.
The majority conservative court ruled 5-4 in Sackett v. EPA, narrowing the federal government’s authority over marshes and bogs. Now, only those wetlands with a continuous surface water connection to larger streams, lakes and rivers get federal protections.
Michael Washburn is the executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Waterways Alliance. He said the ruling undoes 50 years of waterways protections and is “borderline catastrophic” for Kentucky’s waterways.
“Once you start, like sort of pulling the thread on these things they're going to be, it will accumulate and it ends up threatening the integrity of the entire water system,” Washburn said. “Just because when you look at something, you can't see how it's feeding into another body of water, doesn't mean by any stretch of the imagination that there's not interconnectivity there.”
KWA data indicates that there are around 324,000 acres of wetlands in Kentucky and that there are more miles of flowing water in the Commonwealth than in every other state in the U.S. outside of Alaska. Washburn said these delicate ecosystems provide “an incalculable benefit” to Kentuckians.
“They've been ignored for a long time, because people just don't think about them, but they are absolutely essential to the health of our communities and the health of our economies, as well,” he said.
Washburn said wetlands serve as carbon sinks to improve climate stability, filtering groundwater, mitigating floodwaters and providing habitats for many endangered and threatened species. In Kentucky, endangered wetlands species include the brown bog sedge, red turtlehead, Hall’s bulrush, swamp candles, alligator gar, swamp darter, Kirtland’s snake, copperbelly water snake, blue-winged teal, little blue heron and masked shrew.
The Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet says wetlands’ “water quality and flood control functions” save the state money on cleaning up drinking water and repairing damage to homes and businesses.
“There's the cliche that everyone's downstream from someone else, right. And that's very true … that's why it's a cliche. The water that we drink is only as healthy as the sources that it comes from,” he said. “Wetlands in many parts of the state are essential parts of the path that water takes: from the sky when it falls down as rain, to the taps into the glasses that we use to drink our water, that our kids drink their water from.”
Moving forward, Washburn hopes that lawmakers consider changing Kentucky's state law — which currently adheres to the Clean Water Act — to allow for the wetlands excluded by this change to fall under state environmental protections.
"If you pull the teeth of the Clean Water Act that we have, it's illegal for us to do anything more strict than that," the environmental advocate said.
The ruling also deals a major blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to restore protections to millions of acres of wetlands.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lauded the decision in a Thursday release, calling it a “victory for common sense” and a “stern rebuke of Washington Democrats’ sprawling regulatory state.”
“The Court’s ruling provides long-awaited relief and much-needed clarity for millions of small businesses and landowners on the limits of the federal government’s power over ‘waters of the United States (WOTUS),’” McConnell said. “I am glad the Supreme Court has once again put an unelected federal bureaucracy in its place.”
This ruling comes less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling that restricts the EPA’s ability to regulate climate warming gasses.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan dissented the decision Thursday, saying that the court has appointed “itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.”