Supreme Court Upholds States' Right to Protect Rivers from Hydropower Dams


The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a 9-0 opinion in the case of S.D. Warren v. Maine Board of Environmental Protection, rejecting a South African paper company' s bid to exempt five of its hydroelectric dams in Maine from the Clean Water Act. In doing so, the court upheld states' long-established practice of requiring hydropower dams to comply with state water quality standards, as well as established science demonstrating dams' impact on water quality.Coalition members American Rivers and Friends of the Presumpscot River (FOPR) were formal intervenors to the case, strongly supporting Maine's right to require dams on its rivers to live up to the state's water quality standards. They were joined by the Bush Administration, a bipartisan group of attorneys general from 35 states and territories, American Indian tribes, angling groups, leading river scientists and engineers, more than four dozen conservation and recreation NGOs, and others that filed "friend of the Court" briefs in support of Maine's position.While hydropower dams can provide a number of benefits, they do so at considerable cost to rivers. Dams can destroy healthy fisheries, harm river ecosystems, and limit recreational opportunities. Since the 1970s, states have used the Clean Water Act to mitigate many of these harmful impacts. A win by S.D. Warren could have given the hydropower industry a long-sought-after loophole allowing dam owners to escape state water quality requirements. Instead, the Court recognized that dams can cause severe water quality impacts that are a state's "legitimate legislative business," and calling states' Clean Water Act authority over federally-licensed hydropower dams "a system that respects the States' concerns."