June 18, 2020

The Clean Water Act and the Coral Reef: A Decision in County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund

Sara A. Colangelo

In the Supreme Court’s first Clean Water Act case in more than a decade, the Court ruled that a federal permit is required if the addition of pollutants through groundwater is the “functional equivalent” of a direct release into navigable waters from a point source, settling a long-standing dispute about the applicability of the Act to indirect discharges.


The County of Maui’s Lahaina wastewater reclamation plant collects sewage, partially treats it, and injects that mixture into four wells hundreds of feet underground. Effluent from the wells travels half a mile, then emerges from submarine fissures in the ocean. Since the 1980s, this plant conveyed excess nutrients and pathogens to a popular coral reef snorkeling spot, Kahekili Beach. The legal dispute concerned whether the pollutants’ journey through groundwater before reaching the ocean exempted the County’s plant from federal permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act (CWA or the Act). 

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