Federal Judge Restores Obama-Era Protections for Streams, Marshes, and Wetlands

Federal Judge Restores Obama-Era Protections for Streams, Marshes, and Wetlands

A federal judge has thrown out a Trump-era environmental rollback that scaled back federal protections for the nation’s streams, marshes, and wetlands. Despite support from farm and business groups, the federal judge ruled that the rollback could lead to "serious environmental harm." Environmental groups are celebrating the decision, which will reinstate protections for drinking water supplies and wetland wildlife.

Why This Matters

Drinking water is a rapidly disappearing resource, and millions of Americans are experiencing water shortages and mandatory water use cuts. A "megadrought" in the US west has pushed the Colorado River and Lake Mead, which provide drinking water to 40 million people, to record lows and triggered a first-ever water shortage declaration for the sources. As heatwaves and increasing natural disasters sweep the US, the public demand for clean, accessible drinking water is on the rise. To meet this demand, the nation will have to protect at least 30% of all public lands and waters by 2030.

Islands in the Stream

US District Judge Rosemary Márquez wrote in her decision that Trump officials made serious errors while finalizing the new, looser version of the Obama Era's Navigable Waters Protection Rule. The rule builds on the 1972 Clean Water Act, which protects the "waters of the United States" by explicitly protecting a broader category of waters, including "ephemeral" systems that may only appear after rainfall and help improve water quality in larger bodies.

Márquez asserted that the US Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees permits to dredge and fill waterways, determined that 75% of its reviewed water bodies did not qualify for protection. Under the Trump rollback, 333 waterway projects that would have required a review under the Obama-era regulation were excluded.

The decision is a win for Indigenous and environmental groups, which pushed the federal court to overturn the rollback in less time than it would take the Biden administration to rewrite the regulations. Christian Hunt, the Southeast program representative for Defenders of Wildlife, says that the decision already impacts Georgia, where a titanium strip-mining operation threatened the Okefenokee Swamp. "This is a welcome day for the Okefenokee, the wetlands surrounding the refuge, and will force Twin Pines to reevaluate this disastrous project," he said.