Upstream Action to Protect Our Ocean and Coasts

SCOTUS case threatens the future of the Clean Water Act

Raised in Milwaukee, a quaint city on the western shore of Lake Michigan, I’ve always had an intimate connection to water. My favorite childhood memories include navigating beaches, trails and streams along the lake, traversing rock walls to find the best views, and occasionally, taking a dip in its chilly waters. Like many Milwaukeeans, the lake is part of my identity. As a person immersed in this interior, “fresh coast” worldview, I hadn’t spent much time considering how our practices might affect the ocean thousands of miles away. 

Working in ocean conservation has opened my eyes to the larger “aquascape”, a concept that emphasizes the inextricable connectivity of fresh and marine waters, including the transitional brackish waters that link them. To me, the best way to grasp this relationship is by zooming out and tracing watersheds on a map. You’ll notice countless, ever-branching networks of rivers and streams, one flowing into another, snaking across the landscape. Most often, the destination of these inland waters is the ocean, carrying whatever they have swept up on their descent through the watershed.

Map of watersheds

Now a resident of Maryland, I visit the Chesapeake Bay regularly and think about how its waters flow from six different states, draining into the bay, headed to the Atlantic Ocean. We must understand that this interconnectedness can have consequences for the ocean, especially when we fail to prioritize policies and practices that maintain the health and cleanliness of waters upstream. To better preserve the health of the ocean and our planet, we need to invest in more proactive, holistic marine conservation strategies that include rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and estuaries. In short, all water is connected. 

Knowing the wide-ranging impacts of pollution on our ocean, I’m reassured by the existence of the Clean Water Act (CWA) – the legal framework for preserving and restoring “waters of the United States”. The law was passed in 1972 to restore and maintain the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” by regulating the discharge of pollutants in navigable waters, and Section 404 of the CWA provides vital regulatory protection for surrounding wetlands. According to one Yale study, the CWA has led to a significant decrease in concentrations of most water pollution types, and the portion of waters that are fishable has increased since its passing. It’s true that the CWA hasn’t come close to eliminating all water pollution challenges, as many inland water sources remain unsafe and impaired by contaminants. However, benefits of the CWA over the last 50 years have been substantial.   

If anything, we should support strengthened CWA provisions and more robust rules to address water pollution and watershed degradation. However, a longstanding legal caseSackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 and could dramatically reduce CWA protections. Should the court rule against the EPA, half of the wetlands in the lower 48 states would no longer be protected by the CWA, paving the way for developers and industry polluters to destroy these ecosystems and threaten adjacent waterways. Opening oral arguments for the case were heard last October, and a decision from the court is expected in early 2023. The Biden Administration has since introduced a new rule redefining the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act in an attempt to make CWA protections more durable, however, it may not be enough to counteract the potential blow from the Supreme Court.   

Watershed coast from above

What would this mean for the ocean and coastal spaces? To give one example, the filtering function of wetlands acts as “the last defense” against toxic materials entering our waterways, so the destruction of existing wetlands would leave the ocean even more vulnerable to the effects of onshore run-off and nonpoint source pollution that flow downstream. Such pollution would continue to exacerbate pervasive problems like harmful algal blooms, mass fish die-offs, and “dead zones” in the ocean, where few organisms can survive. This would adversely affect the health and livelihoods of coastal communities that rely on clean ocean waters and productive fisheries. 

Climate change continues to amplify these issues. Warmer ocean waters promote the growth of harmful algal blooms, and climate-fueled ocean acidification accelerates the collapse of vital fisheries. Intensifying storms and sea level rise are wiping out weakened wetland ecosystems, eliminating these biodiversity hotspots and leaving the coastal zone and its residents at even more risk. To be frank— now is not the time to unravel a policy that protects wetland ecosystems and safeguards scarce water resources. 

Sackett v. EPA could also have major implications for public health across the country, particularly for those negatively impacted by resource disparities, which are often stark in coastal areas. Water pollution and wetland degradation consistently harm communities subjected to systemic exclusion and segregation on the basis of race, gender, Indigeneity, and/or income level at disproportionate rates. In the Gulf Coast region, many communities of Black and Indigenous peoples are being poisoned by toxic waste dumped by industries into water sources, and wetland loss has left residents at more risk than ever to extreme weather and sea level rise. A 2021 report found that Indigenous communities in the U.S. are the most likely to face challenges in accessing clean water and sanitation. If the Supreme Court rules against the EPA when it issues its opinion in the Sackett case, it would add yet another layer of risk to people already overburdened by contamination and the impacts of wetland loss.

A person fishing on a small boat

Although these realities can be awfully gut-wrenching, I find hope in the countless, diverse advocates raising awareness and organizing around this issue. Because it will take long-term, structural change to reform the Supreme Court, we must leverage more immediate solutions to mitigate impacts of a potential ruling against the EPA. From traditional clean water groups to public health experts, to ocean advocates like myself, a lot of people realize that water is truly the molecule of life, and we cannot afford to let polluters win.   

Everyone can make a difference. Here are some places to start:

  1. Pay attention to politics and vote. Policies and practices affecting water quality are decided at all levels of government, not just federally. Stay informed about the potential of decision-makers to help or harm. Rally your community to vote for the future of our waters.
  2. Learn about and support Indigenous stewardship and activism. For millennia, Indigenous Peoples around the world have protected vital waters through an inseparable connection to place and traditional conservation practices. Amid a growing threat to Indigenous autonomy, we must amplify needs voiced by Indigenous communities and work to support their resistance movements. A good first step is to familiarize yourself with surrounding, traditional Native lands and waters and learn about Indigenous-led conservation efforts in the area. 
  3. Coordinate individual coalitions around similar goals. Countless different coalitions mobilize for the health of our planet and our communities, and although it’s not always obvious, many have similar goals. All these causes—be they ocean health, racial justice, or farmworkers’ rights, are in some way impacted by water and water quality. Coming together around common issues is one way to amplify our voices and encourage mutual support across movements. Start by talking to organizations and communities you’re involved with about the significance of advocating for clean, healthy water for all.  
  4. Take action through local efforts to improve water quality. Local conservation strategies can have more impact on the global ocean than some may think. Take a moment to research ways to get involved in addressing water quality challenges and build your local sense of community. Join a community-based water quality monitoring effort. Clean up trash from your local waterways. Support local restoration projects. 
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