Supreme Court Decision Threatens Waterways that Birds (and People) Need

The Court’s ruling in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency removes crucial protections for wetlands, limiting the Clean Water Act.
A rosa walking through the grass in a wetland
Sora. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob

“This Supreme Court ruling weakens our federal standards for clean water, threatening our ability to protect ecosystems and landscapes needed for birds and communities across the country,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon’s Vice President for Water Conservation. “Federal experts will no longer be able to require certain development permits in America’s decimated wetlands. This decision undermines Clean Water Act protections for many types of waterways that birds and people need, all while birds are telling us that more action is needed to protect their future.”

In today's ruling, the United States Supreme Court curtailed the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to regulate “waters of the United States”. While the Clean Water Act includes regulatory definitions for most large bodies of water and rivers, smaller waterways which may be seasonal or disconnected are not as clearly defined. Today’s ruling limits the ability of the agencies to permit activities on many of these smaller waterways and means that unregulated development can occur in many of these areas.

With the loss of 3 billion birds in the past 50 years—in part due to dwindling wetlands and significant development of natural spaces—and Audubon science showing that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change, action is needed to protect the water bodies and habitat that birds need to survive. Waters throughout the United States like seasonal streams and isolated wetlands serve as essential habitat for birds and other wildlife. These water bodies provide crucial sources of drinking water, food, and nutrition for birds. Birds also uses lakes, streams, and wetlands for breeding and nesting, as well as for rest stops during long migratory journeys.

Wetlands and seasonal streams provide more than just critical bird habitat—they also provide us with nature’s filters to clean our drinking water and protect us from storms, floods, and other climatic stressors. Too many low-income communities, Tribal communities, and communities of color do not have consistent access to safe, affordable drinking water and strong protections under the Clean Water Act are needed to support these communities.

“More than fifty years ago, Congress came together in a bipartisan manner to pass the Clean Water Act,” said Hill-Gabriel. “We all need clean water to survive and thrive and this ruling means that there are now fewer tools in the toolbox for our federal agencies to protect vital habitats and waterways for birds and people.”

Audubon will continue working with state and local decision-makers to strengthen protections for waterways that birds need.


Media Contact:
Joey Kahn,
Communications Director for Water Conservation ​​​​​​