U.S. Supreme Court Decision Upholds Clean Water Act Protections

April 23 2020

The highest court in the nation decided in favor of the Surfrider Foundation to defend clean water for all people

Today, the Surfrider Foundation attained a monumental win as the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund case in favor of the Surfrider Maui Chapter and coalition of environmental organizations to uphold Clean Water Act protections for all people. In a 6-3 ruling, the majority of the highest court in the nation found that liability for pollution exists "when there is direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge." 

“This is a huge victory in defending clean water at the highest court in the nation. We were very glad to see six Supreme Court Justices unwilling to allow a massive loophole in the Clean Water Act and instead, step up to honor the purpose of the Act by formulating the functional equivalent test," said Surfrider's Legal Director, Angela Howe. "After over a decade on this important campaign to protect water quality off the Northwest coast of Maui, we defended the Clean Water Act at the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2019. We are very pleased with the court’s ruling today, and we are confident that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will find in our favor on remand.”

After the County of Maui lost two lawsuits for dumping 3-5 million gallons of treated sewage into groundwater every day, which decimated nearby coral reefs and popular ocean recreational areas, the County of Maui appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The County claimed that because it was not injecting water ‘directly’ into federal waters, the Clean Water Act wasn’t applicable to their massive sewage discharge. This put the nation’s premier water quality protection law at risk and threatened our country’s rivers, streams, lakes, ocean and drinking sources.

Four environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club Maui Group and West Maui Preservation Association, represented by Earthjustice, stood up at the highest court in the country in November 2019 to protect clean water. Two lower courts previously agreed with the environmental groups and ruled that the County of Maui violated the law by injecting treated sewage into the groundwater, which has been proven to enter the Pacific Ocean, a protected U.S. body of water covered by the federal Clean Water Act. 

“Clean ocean water is a vital part of communities in Hawai‘i,” said Surfrider’s Hawai‘i Regional Manager, Lauren Blickley. “This case underscored the need to take a hard look at the interests of the Clean Water Act contributing to the decline of West Maui’s coral reefs and areas of ocean recreation.”

“We have been fighting for nine years for the protection of clean water and public health for all people,” said Tim Lara with the Surfrider Foundation Maui Chapter. “This case was about more than defending Maui’s coral reef at Kahekili Beach Park, which has been devastated by the 3-5 million gallons of wastewater dumped into groundwater every day by the County of Maui. This was also about defending the Clean Water Act and its ability to protect our waterways from pollution, regardless of the route of discharge into protected waterways.”

For more information on this clean water victory, visit surfrider.org

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About the Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation is a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s ocean, waves and beaches through a powerful network. Founded in 1984 by a handful of visionary surfers in Malibu, California, the Surfrider Foundation now maintains over one million supporters, activists and members, with more than 170 volunteer-led chapters and student clubs in the U.S., and more than 700 victories protecting our coasts. Learn more at surfrider.org.