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Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on a Clean Water Act case (Sackett v. EPA) puts fisheries, water quality and human health at risk, according to the American Fisheries Society (AFS). The test established by the court for determining when wetlands are “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act eliminates federal safeguards for most wetlands in the United States. The AFS has called the test “very narrow” and adds that “the decision flies in the face of sound science and will have a staggering impact on fish, fisheries, wildlife, aquatic ecosystems, and human health.”

“The court has ignored fifty years of science”

The American Fisheries Society claims the court’s decision to provide Clean Water Act protections only to wetlands that have a “continuous surface connection” to 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,” they state.

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According to data they provide, the decision leaves more than 50 percent of wetlands in some watersheds without Clean Water Act protections, which will produce a cascade of consequences stemming from poorer water quality, increased flooding, and pollution, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, and reduced carbon storage.

The AFS thinks the ruling is at odds with the singular goal of the Clean Water Act: to restore and maintain 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,” they claim.

“The U.S. Congress should and must act”

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court takes on particular significance at a time when climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts. Wetlands help ensure that navigable waters are safe for drinking, fishing and swimming. “In the face of climate change, it has never been more important to protect our valuable wetlands,” says the AFS. Wetland loss in some regions of the U.S. is already approaching or exceeding 85 percent.

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,” they say.

“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,” they conclude.

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About the American Fisheries Society

The American Fisheries Society (AFS) is the world’s oldest and largest fisheries science society. Founded in 1870, its mission 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.

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