Supreme Court WOTUS Decision Puts Fisheries, Water Quality, and Human Health at Risk

May 30, 2023

Contact: Drue Winters
[email protected]


Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on a significant Clean Water Act case, Sackett vs. EPA, dealt a crippling blow to the future of our nation’s fish and aquatic ecosystems.  The very narrow test established by the court for determining when wetlands are “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act removes federal safeguards for the majority of wetlands in the United States. The decision flies in the face of sound science and will have a staggering impact on fish, fisheries, wildlife, aquatic ecosystems, and human health.

This decision leaves more than 50% percent of wetlands in some watersheds without Clean Water Act protections. A cascade of consequences from poorer water quality, increased flooding and pollution, lost fish and wildlife habitat, and reduced carbon storage will result from this decision.

This U.S. Supreme Court case opinion is at odds with the Clean Water Act’s singular objective: restoring and maintaining the water quality of the Nation’s waters. The Clean Water Act’s mandate can only be met if the science regarding wetlands and streams is used to determine which waters the Clean Water Act protects. However, the court’s decision to provide Clean Water Act protections only to wetlands that have a “continuous surface connection” to a traditionally navigable water has no scientific basis. With this case, the court has ignored fifty years of science that demonstrates that traditional navigable waters are part of interconnected aquatic systems and that wetlands deliver important services such as consistent stream flows, floodwater storage, and water filtration to navigable waters through both surface and subsurface connections.

Wetland loss in some regions of the U.S. already approaches or exceeds 85 percent. Unchecked dredging and filling of wetlands will cripple wetlands’ ability to filter pollutants, absorb flood waters, reduce drought, recharge groundwater aquifers, and stabilize shorelines. With climate change bringing more numerous extreme weather events such as flooding and droughts, this decision will most certainly impair the functioning of wetlands that help ensure that navigable waters are drinkable, fishable, and swimmable. In the face of climate change, it has never been more important to protect our valuable wetlands.

The American Fisheries Society joined several other aquatic science societies in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing for stronger Clean Water Act protections. We showed that narrowing the reach of the Clean Water Act would have devastating effects on wetlands, rivers and streams, fish and wildlife habitat, and for people. The U.S. Congress should and must act to ensure the Clean Water Act can meet the mandate of the law, to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters and preserve our drinkable, fishable, swimmable waters.

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Editor’s Notes: Founded in 1870, the American Fisheries Society (AFS) is the world’s oldest and largest fisheries science society. The mission of AFS is to improve the conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals. With five journals and numerous books and conferences, AFS is the leading source of fisheries science and management information in North America and around the world.