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Clean Water Act protections restored after lawsuit

The Oregon Department of Ecology used 401 Certification to call for improvements to protect salmon on the Columbia River.
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The Oregon Department of Ecology used Section 401 Certification under the Clean Water Act to call for improvements to protect salmon on the Columbia River.

A Trump-era change to the 1971 Clean Water Act which restricted state and tribal voices in large water projects has been overturned by a federal court.

The changes previously gave the federal government sole control over large, water-related projects. Under the new ruling, states and tribes can once again have input into these projects, such as hydropower, fuel pipelines and wetland development.

Sangye Ince-Johannsen is an attorney at the Eugene-based Western Environmental Law Center. His group sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the Trump-era policy. He says the section of the Clean Water Act in question recognizes that local voices provide an important balance to development interests.

“Section 401 empowers states and tribes to protect the people, fish, wildlife, ecosystems that rely on clean, healthy and resilient rivers, lakes, wetlands, oceans and other waters,” says Ince-Johannsen. “It also allows people to have a voice in decisions that would affect how they can use and enjoy their waters for recreational, spiritual, aesthetic benefits that they can provide.”

Section 401 of the Clean Water Act has a wide range of applications.

“A major application for section 401 is to hydropower, so relicensing of dams that cut off native fish runs,” says Ince-Johannsen. “Also you know just things like the development of wetlands. If a property development company is looking to fill and develop wetlands they would need a permit for that, that permitting process would also be subject to 401.”

Hydroelectric projects in California along the Bear and Yuba river could potentially be affected by this change. In Oregon, hydropower projects in particular will be subject to a much fuller environmental review before being able to move forward.

Sophia Prince is a reporter and producer for JPR News. She began as JPR’s 2021 summer intern through the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a BA in journalism and international studies.