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Calm morning on the Rio Grande near Taos, New Mexico.

Securing Sustainable Water Supplies Requires Taking Action Now

May 30, 2024
Radhika Fox
One year after the Sackett decision, our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands are at risk. Here’s how we can ensure decades of progress on clean water are not lost

This summer, millions of Americans will head to local rivers and lakes to spend time in nature and find respite from the hot summer weather. Families will create memories fishing, swimming and playing by the side of the water with their children. For many, these areas are both a vital connection to nature and the backdrop for countless family and community traditions.

Americans could not always count on enjoying these cherished spaces. Not long ago, many rivers and streams around the country were overrun with pollution. Some rivers were so slick with oil that they caught on fire. Far too many local lakes weren’t safe for swimming or fishing.

A bipartisan Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972. With its passage, they envisioned a future where all Americans had access to lakes, rivers and streams that were fishable and swimmable. Where children could play freely on riverbanks and lake shores. And it worked. For the last 50 years, the Clean Water Act has been one of the nation’s most important pieces of environmental law. It has played a transformational role in safeguarding our health and preserving our natural resources for future generations.

Continued access to healthy, flowing rivers and clean lakes is something we can no longer take for granted.

But the progress we’ve made is at risk. Continued access to healthy, flowing rivers and clean lakes is something we can no longer take for granted.

In May of 2023, the Supreme Court took action that gutted the Clean Water Act. With its Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision, the court dramatically reduced federal protections from pollution in waterways across the country. Specifically, it determined that the Clean Water Act does not apply to streams and wetlands that do not have a permanent connection to another body of water. That includes those filled intermittently during heavy rains or snowmelt.

In practice, the Sackett ruling removed federal safeguards for roughly half of the nation’s wetlands and 4 million miles of streams. This represents the drinking water for more than 40 million Americans. Disadvantaged communities are particularly impacted as they are already more likely to have challenges accessing clean water.

The impact of the decision is especially harmful in water-scarce regions of the country. In New Mexico, more than 90% of the state’s surface waters and virtually all rivers have lost federal clean water protections. That is why in its recently released Most Endangered Rivers report, American Rivers listed not one river, but the entirety of New Mexico's rivers and streams as the most endangered waterways in the country.

New Mexico is not alone. At the time Sackett was decided, 24 states relied entirely on the Clean Water Act to protect their wetlands. Without federal oversight, states are forced to go it alone to safeguard the rivers, lakes and streams within their borders.

State surface water permitting programs can be an important mechanism to protect waters no longer shielded by the Clean Water Act. Many states have programs in place and others - including New Mexico, Colorado, Washington and Illinois - are working hard to get them established. It is critical that all states take action to secure vulnerable wetlands.

Any plan to protect the people who depend on these rivers has to start with protecting the rivers themselves.

Regulation is only one piece of the puzzle to maintain clean and reliable water supplies. Sixty million people rely on the Colorado River and the Mississippi River for their water. But more extreme weather, coupled with decades of taking more water from the rivers than they can afford to give, have left them struggling. Any plan to protect the people who depend on these rivers has to start with protecting the rivers themselves.

That is why the Walton Family Foundation is working with our partners to help ensure the Sackett decision does not erase the decades of progress the country has made in securing clean water. Together we are supporting nature-based solutions and land and water conservation.

This includes smart forest management strategies that help prevent catastrophic wildfires and floods. Like restoring wetlands and meadows that are connected to forests and support thriving ecosystems. This creates essential firebreaks that limit damage from wildfires and absorb flood waters when natural disasters occur.

Projects that slow down river flows in targeted areas can help create natural reservoirs that improve river health. This helps recharge depleted groundwater aquifers, create refuges for wildlife and alleviate the impacts of post-fire flooding.

In addition, agricultural practices that prioritize the health of the land can create long-term water savings that reduce the strain on rivers and other water sources. Tactics included rotating the types of crops planted and limiting soil disruption. This creates healthier farmland that is better able to absorb and retain water.

Access to safe, secure and sustainable water is essential for every American. As we continue our collective work, it is essential that we address the needs of communities of color and lower-income residents. Those that have historically been left behind must be a priority moving forward. This includes respecting sovereign Tribal water interests.

Protecting water during climate change is one of the most important challenges of our time. Now is the time to be bold, not timid, and prioritize the health of our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands for generations to come.

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