Today, White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Brenda Mallory delivered a keynote address at the One Water Summit in Tucson, Arizona and laid out the Biden-Harris Administration’s vision for a national commitment to protect clean water. Her speech followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in Sackett v. EPA earlier this year.
Referring to Sackett as “one of the largest judicial rollbacks of environmental protections in U.S. history,” Chair Mallory outlined three keys to bolstering clean water protections and shared how the Administration is working to fulfill President Biden’s belief that every person deserves access to clean water.
While in Arizona, Chair Mallory also visited the Sierra Vista Effluent Recharge Project, which is one of 74 projects receiving over $140 million in funding from the second round of America the Beautiful Challenge (AtBC) grant awards announced yesterday. These projects will support landscape-scale conservation projects across 46 States, three U.S. Territories, and 21 Tribal Nations, including restoring more than 650 acres of wetlands and reconnecting nearly 900 miles of streams and rivers.
Chair Mallory’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, follow:
Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you for the opportunity to join the One Water Summit today.
Thank you to Mami [Hara] and the U.S. Water Alliance for hosting us. Let’s give them a round of applause for not only their advocacy for clean water, but for all the work that goes into pulling an event like this together. Thank you!
I will also say that we in the Biden-Harris Administration are very, very lucky to have Radhika [Fox] – one of your alums – helping lead our clean water work at the EPA. The remarks and conversation we just heard are evidence of why she is such an asset to the Administration.
Radhika, you are a force! I am grateful for your partnership. Thank you for all you do.
I wanted to be here today to talk about the current moment for clean water protection.
We are in one of the biggest fights for clean water in our lifetimes.
And it is a fight that most people have not heard about and do not yet understand.
Yet, the stakes are high.
In the United States, we expect every community to have clean, drinkable water.
We strive for our rivers to be swimmable and fishable.
And we are fiercely proud of what we have done – as a nation – to meet the Clean Water Act’s goals and protect the streams, wetlands, and watersheds that sustain our communities, even as we recognize that there’s more work to do.
But all of these promises, all of the progress we have made, and the basic right to clean water are at risk.
I want to talk today about two competing visions for the future of water in this country and, in plain terms, what life in our country would look like under each of those visions.
I will start by outlining the vision President Biden has: it is rooted in a basic belief that I know motivates many of you, and that the overwhelming majority of people in our country share.
That every person deserves access to clean water.
And it is our responsibility in our communities, as a nation, and through our public laws and public agencies to secure, deliver, and safeguard clean water for every community
Since Day One, President Biden has been leading not only the most ambitious climate agenda in history, andthe most ambitious environmental justice agenda in history, and the most ambitious conservation agenda in history, but also the most ambitious clean water agenda in history.
We are investing $55 billion to deliver clean drinking water, including billions to replace the lead pipes that still contaminate water across the country.
We are also investing billions of dollars to clean up Superfund sites, abandoned mines and wells, and other legacy pollution like PFAS to help keep toxics out of our water.
And we know that we will not have clean water reaching households unless the streams, lakes, and watersheds supplying that water are healthy and uncontaminated.
That is why our Administration is working so hard to conserve and restore the rivers, wetlands, and forests upon which we all depend.
The President’s goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030 is accelerating locally-led efforts to protect the places that give us clean water.
The Boundary Waters in Minnesota.
Bristol Bay and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
The Grand Canyon.
All are indispensable to providing clean water.
And all are protected, thanks to our America the Beautiful initiative.
And there’s more.
This President is the first to use the power of his office to prioritize the restoration of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
He has put the Everglades, the Chesapeake Bay, and other iconic American watersheds back on the country’s priority list.
Here in the West, in partnership with Tribal Nations and states, our Administration has reached a landmark agreement that will help secure the sustainability of the Colorado River System.
Why has the President been working and fighting so hard for clean water?
Because – as any parent or grandparent will tell you – clean water is a required ingredient for healthy children and healthy families.
Go to any community overburdened by pollution, and they will tell you: clean water is a matter of justice.
Or read the National Climate Assessment, which the President released yesterday, and you will see how our waters are impacted and what is at stake.
Climate change is imperiling our water supplies, as we see so clearly here in the Southwest.
And – unless we act – it imperils the health and integrity of the forests, grasslands, marshes, wetlands, streams, and rivers that filter and deliver the water we drink.
That is why the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act together invest more than $50 billion in climate resilience and adaptation.
Just yesterday, we announced more than $140 million in grants to support landscape-scale conservation projects across 46 states, 3 U.S. Territories, and 21 Tribal Nations.
These projects will reconnect nearly 900 miles of streams and rivers, restore more than 650 acres of wetlands and remove or improve more than 150 barriers to fish passage.
We are proud of the progress we are making to protect clean water, and we know that the work we are doing – in partnership with many of you – is changing lives for the better, changing communities for the better, and moving us closer to the goals laid out in the Clean Water Act back in 1972 – when our rivers were literally catching fire because they were so polluted.
The goal of having all our rivers so clean that they are swimmable, fishable, and drinkable remains.
We are closer to achieving the vision of clean water for all.
But – unfortunately – that vision is at risk.
The progress we have made since the passage of the Clean Water Act is at risk because of a different vision – one that prioritizes industrial or corporate ease over protection of water.
For decades, forces have been building the power needed to dismantle important legal and regulatory safeguards that prevent polluters from dumping toxic waste into streams and safeguard wetlands from being drained and paved.
Powerful allies in Congress also have been trying – largely unsuccessfully – to cut funding and enact midnight riders to weaken clean water protections.
Under the previous Administration, some of these efforts got traction. Yet, their attacks on clean water were largely beaten back by public opposition, and by the arrival of the Biden-Harris Administration.
But in a recent court decision, these forces have found their biggest – and most devastating – success.
Opponents of clean water protections have followed a playbook that is similar to the one used to attack other basic protections, like reproductive rights and affirmative action.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA is the culmination of years of work to undermine Clean Water Act safeguards.
And at base, the decision – ignoring the statutory text and the science – severely narrowed the waters that are protected by the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act was intended to protect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.
Now, only select waters – “relatively permanent” bodies of water – are federally protected. So, for a wetland to be protected, it must have a continuous surface connection to those waters.
But that’s not the only way that water flows or how hydrologic systems work.
Even waters that flow infrequently can be connected to larger water bodies and are important to their function. And water in wetlands doesn’t stay there – it moves. That water permeates the ground and enters waters where we swim, fish, and collect drinking water. And so do any pollutants it is carrying.
The Sackett decision is one of the largest judicial rollbacks of environmental protections in U.S. history.
Overnight, more than half of this country’s wetlands lost vital protection under the Clean Water Act.
In the areas of the country most affected by the court’s decision, there is greater risk that source water will be more polluted. Public water systems will have to treat dirtier water.
In some instances, we simply won’t be able to keep up. And even where we can, the cost of treatment will be greater.
Over time – unless we act – unprotected waters that help supply clean water could disappear. Be bulldozed. Blocked. Drained.
Some wetlands that absorb floodwaters upstream – gone – which would mean more flooding downstream. That means risk to downstream communities. Not just of catastrophic flooding itself, but of sewer overflows and drinking water contamination.
States, Tribes, communities, and businesses are understandably worried about how this decision will affect not only their drinking water supplies, but also the food and beverage industry, farms, ranches, and agriculture, outdoor recreation and tourism and the decades of investments and progress made to restore the health of waters and lands.
These worries are real and they are well-placed.
The Sackett decision is wrong. It ignores basic science and the interconnected nature of all waters. It is out of touch with this country’s priorities and values for protecting our water. And it will result in a patchwork of state-level policies that are costly, difficult to implement, and inadequate. But it is currently the Law of the Land.
So, what do we need to do to protect our waters in the face of this change? How do we battle back?
In my view, there are three keys to winning the fight for clean water in this country, in the wake of the Sackett decision.
First, we need to be honest, clear, vocal, and visual about the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling, as that becomes clearer.
People deserve to know that the Sackett decision is among the largest judicial rollbacks of environmental protections in U.S. history.
They also deserve to know how that decision could affect them.
What happens upstream will impact people downstream. And whether it is pollution or flooding, lines on a map or private property boundaries do not change how water flows or what happens when it is obstructed.
Basic facts and numbers are helpful.
The court decision, for example, may remove protections for as many as 63 percent of our nation’s wetlands.
But pictures, stories, and places matter even more than numbers.
In the Upper Midwest, the ruling will threaten many of the wetlands where Tribes have gathered wild rice since time immemorial. Wild rice is essential for Tribal sustenance, cultural ceremonies, and economies. Those places and practices are now at risk.
In Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, around 90 percent of streams flow seasonally, but not year-round. Those streams – like the Rillito River in Arizona and the Tijeras Arroyo in New Mexico – are at risk of pollution and destruction.
In fact, across the country, around 117 million people get some or all of their drinking water from public drinking water systems that rely on intermittent, ephemeral, or headwater streams.
Here in Arizona, 100 percent of people that live here are dependent on these waterways for clean drinking water!
Those of us who are fighting for clean water have to help get this story out, in whatever way we can. Pictures, videos, stories. We have to show the impact and, importantly, figure out how to help communities mitigate for the lost functions.
Second, we have to use all the tools and resources available – at the national, state, and local level – to protect the waters that the Supreme Court has left unprotected.
As Radhika noted, we – at the Federal level – will continue to implement rules under the Clean Water Actin keeping with the court’s ruling. We are committed to implementing the law to deliver the essential protections that safeguard our nation’s waters from pollution and degradation.
Science will be our guide. We now know more than we did in 1972 of climate change, resilience, environmental justice, and the interconnectedness of waters.
But the Clean Water Act is not the only law that helps protect clean water.
That is why we – as an Administration – are stepping up our work to improve water quality through the full range of water programs and tools available across government.
The work that the Interior Department is doing to conserve our public lands helps protect clean water.
The steps the Department of Agriculture is taking to restore the health of forest watersheds help protect clean water.
The Army Corps’ work to restore hydrological connectivity for wetlands and integrate nature-based solutions helps protect clean water.
We are taking and will continue to take an all-of-government approach to advancing the President’s clean water agenda.
Notably, some of the most important – and most urgent – clean water work being done is among States and Tribes, in the places you all live.
They have been put in a position – because of Sackett – of having to step in and step up to protect wetlands and waterways.
We will do everything we can to support those State, Tribal, and locally-led efforts.
But we also need to be clear – even if we do everything we can to bolster clean water protections – it still likely won’t be enough to fully protect the waters at risk because of the Sackett decision.
So, the third thing we must do is reimagine how we achieve national protection of water resources for the 21st century.
We must work together to develop a framework that is durable, stable, and puts the importance of water quality and water quantity front and center.
We appreciate that champions for clean water in Congress are taking this issue seriously and are working on solutions.
Finding durable, long-term solutions will require broad public support. It will take Congressional action. And realistically, it will take time.
While Sackett remains the law, I want to challenge us all to think about what the right solution would look like. How can we break down barriers and develop a framework that fits the challenges we face in the 21st century?
What would it look like to fully address the clean water impacts of challenges like megadrought, flooding, toxic pollution, and expanding development? How can we address the growing problems of affordability and accessibility?
That solution must be durable and sustainable.
As a nation, we need to take an approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of water. Surface, ground, and drinking – it is all connected.
The Sackett decision has made it harder to achieve these goals, but it can also be a catalyst to think big and to fully realize a modern vision for protecting the health and integrity of our waters as one, single, integrated system of waters.
When I meet with Tribes and Indigenous peoples, I sometimes hear about the seven-generation principle.
Is what we are doing today, this action on the table, in the best interest of people seven generations – or 140-210 years from now?
That is a profound question.
Our actions today have lasting effects – for good or for ill.
We need to do everything we can to protect the lands and waters over which we are stewards.
Every stream or wetland that is destroyed may not only be a loss that affects the quality of water coming out of our taps today – it is a loss that burdens future generations.
We have to recognize what is at stake.
We have to recognize that – in this moment – we are in a fight for clean water in this country.
It is a fight we can win. It is a fight we must win.
Thank you for your partnership.