Woman in a red coat in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court severely retracted core protections in the Clean Water Act in May 2023.

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court has dismantled core land and waterway protections in the Clean Water Act by significantly limiting the definition of the “waters of the United States,” (WOTUS).

I previously wrote about the benefits of the Clean Water Act for its 50th anniversary, and mentioned the implications this case, Sackett v. EPA, might have. Many environmentalists feared a significant retraction of the scope of the Clean Water Act as it applies to wetlands, with many expecting a change in line with a Trump administration proposal. The final decision ended up being even worse, with the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and other groups pointing out that the Court’s ruling does the bidding of major industrial polluters, agricultural corporations, and farmer groups that have historically lobbied against clean water protections. The Trump administration predicted that 51 percent of the nation’s wetlands would lose protections under its proposed changes. This Supreme Court ruling will exclude even more wetlands from federal protection.

Nationally, the ruling amounts to a slow-moving, environmental and public health catastrophe in the making. Critical wetlands, particularly wetlands without other protection or attention, will be more susceptible to abuse from pollution or destruction from development. Without an amended ruling in the future or the passage of a law by Congress to overrule the Court’s flawed judicial review, people and wildlife will be harmed by this decision. Our food supplies will suffer over time, our waterways will be increasingly polluted, and natural lands will absorb less planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In Michigan, thankfully, the outlook is not quite so grim. Ours is one of just three states with delegated authority from the federal government to run its own wetlands program. Michigan has clear definitions of wetlands which are unlikely to be affected by the Supreme Court ruling. And local governments are allowed to enact ordinances to protect wetlands

More broadly, the decision is part of an alarming, recent trend from the Supreme Court. The Clean Water Act enjoys overwhelmingly bipartisan support among Americans, and recent polls have found environmental protection to be a top priority for Michigan residents. But the Supreme Court has been using narrow cases to implement broad, regressive changes to environmental law. This was one of several unrepresentative decisions from the Court that ignored decades of scientific study and had implications far beyond the arguments presented in the case.  Michigan legislators and state officials should see these flawed rulings as a call to strengthen and expand state protections for land and water.