Supreme Court Rules Against EPA in Dispute over Regulating Wetlands

The Supreme Court on Thursday curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate certain wetlands that qualify as “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act, curbing what has long been seen as a key tool to protect waterways from pollution.

The high court ruled against the agency in a long-running dispute with Idaho landowners known as Sackett v. EPA. In an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court found that the agency’s interpretation of the wetlands covered by the Clean Water Act is “inconsistent” with the law’s text and structure, and the law extends only to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies of water that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right.”

While the majority acknowledged that weather and climate events like low tides and dry spells can cause “temporary interruptions” between bodies of waters covered by the law, the court said that wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act should be otherwise “indistinguishable” from other regulated waters.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which sided with the EPA.

The 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that the EPA has power over the wetlands. In its decision, the appeals court found the agency has jurisdiction over the Sacketts’ property, which it described as a “soggy residential lot,” because the wetlands on it were adjacent to a tributary that, together with another wetland complex, had a significant nexus to Priest Lake. The wetlands, the 9th Circuit found, “significantly affect the integrity of Priest Lake.”

But Alito warned that the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act, “nearly all waters and wetlands are potentially susceptible to regulation under this [significant nexus] test, putting a staggering array of landowners at risk of criminal prosecution for such mundane activities as moving dirt.”