In a landmark environmental case with far-reaching implications, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of an Idaho couple, dealing a significant blow to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its efforts to protect the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS).
The unanimous decision by the court found that the land owned by the Idaho family was not subject to the Clean Water Act. However, the court was divided on the new “test” for determining the coverage of wetlands under the law, with a 5-4 split.
The case, Sackett v. EPA, was heard by the Supreme Court in October 2022, and it centered around the interpretation of the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The court was tasked with providing a clearer definition of what the law intended regarding the EPA’s authority to regulate WOTUS. The ruling has created national implications for water quality, agriculture, development, and the implementation of the WOTUS rule.
The court’s decision comes just five months after the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued long-awaited regulations to clarify the definition of WOTUS. This timing, with the court hearing the case while the new regulation was being finalized, is considered highly unusual and has raised concerns among some observers.
The Supreme Court’s ruling has sparked concerns among environmental groups and legal experts who estimate that federal protection will be removed from approximately half of all wetlands in the continental United States.
Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, estimates that as many as 118 million acres of wetlands, an area larger than the landmass of California, could lose EPA protection. This ruling is expected to grant farmers, home builders, and other developers greater freedom to disturb lands that were previously regulated under the Clean Water Act.
The decision has faced criticism from environmental advocates who argue that it undermines the legal foundation of the new science-based WOTUS regulation and poses a threat to the health of communities and ecosystems. Sam Sankar, senior vice president of Programs at Earthjustice, expressed concern about the potential consequences, stating, “The Sackett decision undoes a half-century of progress generated by the Clean Water Act.”
Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger highlighted the implications of the ruling, particularly in the context of climate change.
Donziger said, “As the world faces climate catastrophe, our pro-industry Supreme Court ruled today that most of the nation’s wetlands cannot be regulated by the government.”
On the other hand, proponents of the ruling, including Representative G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) and American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, view it as a victory for farmers, ranchers, and landowners. They argue that the decision reaffirms property owners’ rights and provides much-needed clarity to rural America. These proponents urge the Biden administration to rewrite the Waters of the United States Rule to strike a better balance between protecting water resources and the rights of rural Americans.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating that it erodes longstanding clean water protections. He emphasized that the agency would carefully review the decision and consider next steps in line with their goals of safeguarding the nation’s waters and ensuring economic opportunity.
The ruling by Justice Samuel Alito, joined by four conservative justices, narrows the scope of the Clean Water Act, limiting federal regulation to wetlands with a continuous surface connection to major bodies of water.
Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissenting opinion, compared this ruling to a previous decision that curtailed the EPA’s authority to combat climate change, expressing concern about the court’s role as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.
With this ruling, the EPA will face the challenge of reassessing its regulatory approach and potentially starting from scratch in its efforts to protect and regulate waters under the Clean Water Act. The court’s decision marks a significant shift in the understanding of Congress’s intent when passing the Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, reverting to a more traditional interpretation of the law.
As stakeholders and communities grapple with the implications of this ruling, the future of water protection and the balance between regulatory oversight and property rights remains uncertain.