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The Supreme Court narrows the scope of the Clean Water Act

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk about the nation's wetlands now. They're like your kidneys in that they filter the country's water, some of which we drink. They also provide habitats for wildlife, and they help prevent flooding. But under a new ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, more than half of the nation's wetlands no longer have federal protection. NPR's Nathan Rott has been covering this ruling, and he's with us now to tell us more about it.

Good morning, Nathan.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So walk us through this case that the Supreme Court ruled on yesterday.

ROTT: Yeah. So this was the culmination of a decadeslong dispute between the Environmental Protection Agency and two property owners, a couple in northern Idaho that wanted to build a house near a lake in, basically, a boggy area. The issue is that the EPA considers that boggy area to be a protected wetland, meaning that the people would have more hoops to jump through. The property owners did not want to do that. They argued they shouldn't have to because they thought federal law, the Clean Water Act, never intended to protect boggy areas like the one they wanted to build in. The Supreme Court yesterday agreed.

MARTIN: OK. So remind me, what was the Clean Water Act meant to protect?

ROTT: At the most basic level - right? - it's meant to protect the nation's water. But when you really look into the details of this, it gets really complicated because the Clean Water Act is notoriously vague about which waterways it actually intends to protect. So I won't bore you with all the kind of, like, legal jargon here, but there is a real question about whether the Clean Water Act just protects big rivers and lakes or if it also includes, you know, seasonal streams, wetlands like the kind that this couple was looking to build on.

MARTIN: But I take it that the reason we're talking about this is that there's more at stake here than one boggy field.

ROTT: Absolutely. It's why, you know, industry developers, basically all sorts of folks across the country have been so interested in how this would shake out. And it's why the Supreme Court has already weighed in on the Clean Water Act's scope multiple times. An environmental law expert I was talking to yesterday, Cara Horowitz at the University of California Los Angeles, says this ruling that just happened seems different, more lasting, because generally in all cases, the Supreme Court lets federal agencies decide how they want to interpret law.

CARA HOROWITZ: This court is quite explicitly aggregating to itself the power to say what the law is and taking discretion away from agencies.

ROTT: Which is something that she says is really alarming because agencies are where subject-matter experts are and the science that helped determine these decisions.

MARTIN: And what does the science tell us about which waters should be protected?

ROTT: What we know today better than we did in 1972, when the Clean Water Act was written, is that waterways are connected not just in ways that we can see, but also in ways that we can't, and that even smaller or temporary bodies of water, you know, a stream that only comes alive after a big rainstorm - those are also really important. A third of the U.S. population gets water from systems that are fed by ephemeral or those kinds of seasonal streams. We also know that many of our water systems are threatened by a warming climate. This is why the EPA under the Biden administration, has been trying to protect most of these waterways. It's why its administrator, Michael Regan, said he's deeply disappointed by yesterday's decision, and it's why a lot of water advocacy groups are now urging state and local agencies to step up to protect waterways themselves in lieu of federal protections.

MARTIN: That's Nathan Rott. He's with NPR's Climate Desk.

Nate, thanks so much.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.