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Supreme Court Strengthens Clean Water Act

  • 6-to-3 Supreme Court vote in favor of upholding the Clean Water Act
  • 11 Number of amicus briefs filed by organizations in support of the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund
  • 30+ Number of years that Maui County discharged waste into the groundwater
The decision is a stinging rebuke to the Trump administration’s efforts to disregard the plain meaning of laws passed by Congress while rolling back environmental protections. The case shows that such policies are unacceptable to Justices from across the ideological spectrum. Scott Nelson, Public Citizen attorney who served as Supreme Court Co-Counsel

Public Citizen’s litigation group won a significant victory in April 2020 when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with clean water activists in their case against Maui County. Dubbed “The Clean Water Case of the Century,” County of Maui v. Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund strengthened the Clean Water Act (CWA) and allowed enforcement of water pollution regulations after decades of illegal sewage disposal in Hawai‘i.

Since the 1980s, the Lahaina wastewater treatment facility has released millions of gallons of treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean each day. Traveling from underground disposal wells through the groundwater, the sewage is continually discharged at Kahekili beach, one of the island’s most popular snorkeling spots. Gradually, this pollution has severely affected the once-pristine coral reef and decayed huge swaths of marine habitat.

The CWA prohibits the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters without a permit, which Maui County never obtained. For years, community members vocally opposed this unregulated pollution yet were met with no action from county officials, so four nonprofits joined forces to sue Maui County in 2012. The Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club-Maui Group, the Surfrider Foundation, and the West Maui Preservation Association—first represented in court by EarthJustice—argued that this sewage disposal violated the CWA. The U.S. District Court in Hawai‘i agreed with the clean water advocates in 2015.

Maui County challenged this ruling, arguing that the Clean Water Act’s language regulating “point source” pollution did not include discharges that travel from point sources to navigable waters through groundwater and thus their sewage disposal was not “direct” enough to be regulated by the Act. Rejecting this argument, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling and affirmed that Maui County needed a permit for this wastewater discharge.

Seeking one final shot at avoiding compliance with the CWA, Maui County filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the lower courts’ decisions. In 2019, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Public Citizen’s Litigation Group joined forces with EarthJustice as co-counsel for the coalition of clean water advocates.

The case hinged on whether the Clean Water Act granted exceptions for “indirect” discharges into navigable waters. Public Citizen and EarthJustice argued it did not. Recognizing such exceptions, the team argued, would essentially rewrite the law and create a loophole so large it would undermine the entire act. As the attorney who argued for the team pointed out during oral arguments, if “indirect” discharges fell outside the CWA, wastewater facilities could dispose of waste from pipes five feet away from the ocean and still be exempt from the law.

In a 6-to-3 opinion, the Supreme Court agreed that such a reading contradicted the words of the law and ruled that discharges into navigable waters are included in the CWA if they are the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge. Following this victory, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the two lower courts to review the case using the guideline of “functional equivalence” and determine future action for Maui’s wastewater discharge practices.

The implications of this ruling are huge; though County of Maui v. Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund began as a local pollution case, a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Maui County could have opened the floodgates to enable widespread water pollution across the U.S. This decision gives teeth to one of the country’s most important environmental acts and protects countless bodies of water from harmful pollution in the future.



  • For decades, a Maui wastewater plant discharged pollutants into the groundwater without a permit, leading to the decay of coral reefs.
  • After two lower courts sided with clean water advocates who argued that this violated the Clean Water Act, Maui County petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case.
  • Public Citizen—serving as co-counsel for the environmental advocacy groups—argued that indirect discharges were not exempt from the Act’s regulations. The Supreme Court agreed and sided with environmental advocates, upholding the prior court’s rulings.