WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, October 18, 2023, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, will hold a hearing to examine the implications of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency for the Clean Water Act’s protections of wetlands and streams.
Below is the opening statement of Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:
“We are here today to examine the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency for our nation’s wetlands and streams. Our hearing is timely as today marks the 51st anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
“While the Clean Water Act has been immensely successful at cleaning up our country’s waters and slowing the loss of wetlands, the Sackett decision has jeopardized nearly a half-century of progress under this bedrock environmental law. To understand the significance of this ruling, it’s important for us to recall the state of our nation's waterways in the early 1970s.
“Before the Clean Water Act, our nation’s waters were subject to indiscriminate pollution and destruction. Our waters were so polluted that the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire in 1969 — not far from where I went to college as a Navy ROTC midshipman during the Vietnam War. This fire served as a wake-up call for many across our nation.
“As a result, Congress got to work. Thanks to champions like Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat from Maine, and Senator Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972. In doing so, they made a bipartisan commitment to protecting and restoring our nation’s waterways. The law very clearly states that its objective is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.
“Today, the science is very clear: we simply cannot achieve that goal without protecting wetlands and streams. That is because the health of our waterways, and the health of our wetlands and streams are inextricably linked.
“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed to recognize this link in May of this year when the conservative majority upended more than four decades of agency practice and precedent based on the original intent of the law.
“While we don’t yet know the full extent of the damage from the Sackett decision, scientists estimate that more than half of our nation’s wetlands no longer have Clean Water Act protections. This loss of federal protections could have disastrous consequences for our environment and economy.
“Why are wetlands so important? In addition to sequestering carbon, wetlands act as natural sponges that trap, filter, and slowly release water. They help provide us with clean drinking water and protect our property and infrastructure. In fact, wetlands can store more than a million gallons of floodwater per acre. They provide an estimated $1.2 trillion to $2.9 trillion in prevented National Flood Insurance Program claims each year in our country.
“Removing protections for wetlands is especially shortsighted as climate change continues to fuel more extreme weather events, which we witness almost daily. In Delaware, we have seen firsthand how wetlands can mitigate flood risk. After Hurricane Sandy, we restored degraded wetlands in communities that had long flooded during storms. Since the completion of that restoration project, many of those communities no longer flood.
“Wetlands also provide irreplaceable habitat for many wildlife species, especially birds and fish. At a time when habitat loss is one of the factors driving a global crisis of biodiversity loss, we should think long and hard before eliminating protections for more than half of our wetlands.
“The Sackett decision increased the burden of wetlands management for states. Currently, 25 states do not have laws in lieu of the Clean Water Act to protect their wetlands. Even in states with wetlands protection laws, many regulators have said that they lack the capacity to issue permits for the wetlands and streams previously protected by federal agencies.
“Furthermore, watersheds span multiple states, which means that the actions in one state often impact neighboring states. Even if states could quickly expand their capacity to protect waters and wetlands, a patchwork of state laws would result in confusion and regulatory uncertainty. If states are left to conserve wetlands by themselves, the objective of the Clean Water Act would be unfulfilled.
“What’s more, wetlands are only one part of the impact of the Sackett decision. This ruling also likely means that more than a million miles of streams no longer have protections under the Clean Water Act. These streams provide over $15 trillion per year in ecosystem services, including protecting and filtering water supplies.
“Streams that only flow for part of the year are especially vulnerable because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett. These types of streams play a key role in mitigating drought and protecting water supplies for communities in the Western United States, particularly for Tribal nations. Many of those communities are now rightfully concerned about their ability to protect these streams without federal protections in place.
“Let me close by saying that the Sackett decision ignored science and turned back the clock on protections for our wetlands and streams. This decision puts our health, our environment, and our economy at risk.
“For more than 45 years, eight consecutive Democratic and Republican administrations interpreted the Clean Water Act protections to be broader than they are following the Sackett decision. The need to make our nation’s waters safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing was obvious to Congress in the 1970s. Today, I believe that the Supreme Court got it wrong in the Sackett decision. And, I know that many of our colleagues agree.”