Anya Fetcher

Maine is a water state. Rivers run through us. Our lakes beckon us. Coastal waters mesmerize us. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Maine people have given the Clean Water Act a total embrace.

And now, 50 years later, people across the state are celebrating the law’s passage for turning rivers like the Androscoggin, once considered a “reeking mess of filth and debris,” into the scenic destination it is today. 

In fact, few federal laws have been as transformative to the nation’s quality of life as the Clean Water Act. The goal of the act, which was championed by Maine’s own Sen. Edmund Muskie, was nothing less than “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” To achieve this goal, Congress created a cooperative federal structure that gave the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broad authority to protect important waters throughout the watershed. 

It is hard to overstate the Clean Water Act’s ongoing importance to our health, economy, and way of life. The law, according to a new report, has helped limit pollution, hold polluters accountable, and fund restoration efforts. Today, its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program alone prevents 700 billion pounds of pollutants from entering our waters annually.

Approximately 200,000 “point source” polluters — including sewage treatment facilities, paper mills, petroleum refineries, indoor hog farms, and certain construction sites — are currently covered under the law.  

Now, in a particularly cruel bit of timing, as we celebrate 50 years of progress due to the Clean Water Act’s effectiveness, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case that could cripple it. In Sackett v. EPA — an already historic occasion as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s first case — a radical opponent of clean water is seeking to withdraw the act’s longstanding protections for roughly half the nation’s streams and wetlands. In Maine, more than 206 miles of streams could lose protections.


What’s at stake is the integrity, and in many cases very existence, of streams and wetlands that provide flood control, recharge waters during drought, filter pollution, and provide habitat. These waterways are the kidneys and sponges of larger rivers and lakes, safeguarding the health and safety of those communities that depend on such waters. 

With climate change fueling more intense storms, longer and deeper droughts, and temperatures that catalyze harmful algal growth and exacerbate pollution, the functions performed by healthy natural water systems are essential for our future stability. 

If the plaintiffs succeed in their radical legal agenda, it will be open season for the federally unregulated pollution and destruction of many important waterways. The results would be catastrophic. For example, flood-absorbent wetlands here in Maine would be at risk of being filled in and paved over. Upstream waterways that store and filter water could be erased from the landscape, worsening droughts and water quality.  

These impacts will hit frontline communities hardest. Decades of under-investment in drinking water and proper treatment of waste means communities that have already historically faced a disproportionate share of flooding and water pollution will have to bear the brunt of this ruling.  

The Supreme Court needs to honor the intent of Congress to protect the drinking water supplies for hundreds of millions of Americans. But Maine also needs to prepare for the worst. If federal protections are withdrawn from our streams and wetlands, state and local authorities will need to step in and protect the integrity of our waters.

Thankfully Maine has a long legacy of bipartisan support for clean water. Just last year, the Legislature unanimously supported water quality improvement for hundreds of miles of rivers, streams, and other waters.

Standing up for these sorts of protections will be all the more important here in Maine, where our clean water is a key part of our identity and so central to our booming outdoor economy.  

Anya Fetcher is the federal policy advocate for the Augusta-based Natural Resources Council of Maine.

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