The U.S. Supreme Court is unanimous in finding in favor of an Idaho couple who’ve tangled with the EPA for years over interpretations of the federal Clean Water Act. The Justices did produce competing opinions in ruling for the couple.
The 5-to-4 majority opinion found that in Sackett v. EPA that federal regulators have long overstepped their authority under the Clean Water Act. The majority opinion written by Justice Alito means EPA’s authority over wetlands is not as broad as the agency wanted. Joining Alito were Justices Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch and Barrett.
The Court found that to fall under the Clean Water Act, wetlands adjacent to traditionally navigable waters must qualify as “waters of the United States” in their own right by being indistinguishably part of a body of water that itself constitutes “waters” under the Clean Water Act.
In the decision, the Court did not follow the EPA’s most recent interpretation of Waters of the United States, which included those wetlands that possess a “significant nexus” to traditional navigable waters or those that are adjacent to, or “neighboring,” traditional navigable waters.
The other opinion was written by Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson, Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion agreed with the Court’s majority not to adopt the “significant nexus” test for determining whether a wetland is covered under the Clean Water Act but disagreed with the new test the majority opinion lays out.
The high court found that there must be a continuous surface connection, making it difficult to determine where the water ends and the wetland begins.
Kavanaugh specifically disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of “adjacent” wetlands under the Clean Water Act to mean only “adjoining” wetlands, noting that “adjacent” and “adjoining” have distinct meanings.
Alito opened by explaining the origins of the dispute between the Sacketts and EPA as follows:
“Petitioners Michael and Chantell Sackett purchased property near Priest Lake, Idaho, and began backfilling the lot with dirt to prepare for building a home. The Environmental Protection Agency informed the Sacketts that their property contained wetlands and that their backfilling violated the Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharging pollutants into “the waters of the United States.”
“The EPA ordered the Sacketts to restore the site, threatening penalties of over $40,000 per day. The EPA classified the wetlands on the Sacketts’ lot as “waters of the United States” because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake. The Sacketts sued, alleging that their property was not “waters of the United States.” The District Court entered summary judgment for the EPA. The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court affirmed, holding that the CWA covers wetlands with an ecologically significant nexus to traditional navigable waters and that the Sacketts’ wetlands satisfy that standard.”
In response to the decision in Sackett v. EPA. National Association of State Departments of Agriculture CEO Ted McKinney said its impact will be on states and farmers.
“The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Sackett v. EPA today comes as welcome news to farmers, landowners, and state departments of agriculture who sought clarity on what has been an over-litigated issue for decades,” McKinney said. “We take relief in this decision as the justices clearly state the ‘significant nexus theory is particularly implausible’ and the EPA has no statutory basis to impose the standard.”
“Today’s ruling proves that protecting our nation’s waterways and growing food, fiber, and fuel are two tandem efforts – not two competing interests,” McKinney said. “There is, however, still work to be done to ensure farmers and ranchers are equipped to best care for their land while following applicable federal or state requirements.”
NASDA turns to EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a revised version of their released WOTUS rule. Going against volumes of stakeholder input, EPA and the Corps issued a WOTUS rulemaking before today’s SCOTUS decision, which now renders portions of the agency’s final WOTUS rule moot.
Looking forward, NASDA said it will continue to work with EPA, the Corps, and NASDA members to update and implement a regulatory framework that better reflects the needs of state agriculture departments, farmers, ranchers, and all the communities they serve.
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