Anchoring the Clean Water Act: Congress's Constitutional Sources of Power to Protect the Nation's Waters

Environmental Law Institute
Date Released
July 2007

Recent Supreme Court rulings have called into question federal Clean Water Act coverage for certain wetlands and streams. Legislation recently introduced in the House of Representatives would amend the Act to restate and clarify Congress’s intent to regulate the waters of the United States to the fullest extent of its legislative power. The Environmental Law Institute has issued a new white paper that identifies which constitutional powers Congress can rely on to protect the Nation’s waters, and explains in straightforward language what the Supreme Court has said about these powers.

The Supreme Court rulings in question (Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2001, and Rapanos v. United States, 2006) were limited to interpreting Congressional intent in 1972, when Congress used the terms “navigable waters” and “waters of the United States” to assert federal jurisdiction under the Act. The Court has never decided the underlying constitutional question: what is the scope of Congress’s constitutional authority to protect the Nation’s waters? ELI’s legal analysis is intended to inform this debate.

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