The Supreme Court on Thursday slashed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory control over water bodies in a win for conservative critics who argued the agency wielded too much power.
The court ruled that the 1972 Clean Water Act, which allows the EPA to regulate wetlands, only applies to wetlands that are obviously connected to larger regulated water bodies.
The case arose from a situation of an Idaho couple, Michael and Chantell Sackett, who wanted to build a home on land that the EPA considered a protected wetland.
The EPA argued the “wetlands” on the Sacketts’ property should be classified as “waters of the United States” because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, according to court documents.
In the court’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that a protected wetland must have a “continuous surface connection” to a larger body of water. An underground connection that is not obvious does not give the EPA regulatory power, the court ruled.
“In sum, we hold that the [Clean Water Act] extends to only those ‘wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right,’ so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters,” Alito wrote.
The Clean Water Act is meant to allow the EPA to regulate pollution in “waters of the United States,” but it does not define “waters of the United States,” which allowed the EPA leeway on the definition.
The previous standard was determined by former Justice Anthony Kennedy, who ruled that wetlands had to have a “significant nexus” to a nearby regulated body of water.
Thursday’s ruling overturns a federal appeals court ruling, which ruled in favor of the EPA in 2021.
Justice Elena Kagan, considered to be one of the court’s more liberal justices, concurred with the judgment, but criticized the court for appointing “itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.”
“Because that is not how I think our Government should work — more, because it is not how the Constitution thinks our Government should work — I respectfully concur in the judgment only,” she wrote in a concurring opinion.
In 2017, Rep. John Duarte (R-CA) paid $1.1 million in civil penalties for plowing 22 acres of his farm that the government deemed wetlands near the Sacramento River.
“They’re going after us because we didn’t get a permit to plow, even though the Clean Water Act says no permit is needed and indeed no permit has ever been required or issued to a wheat farmer ever before; and we didn’t avoid some small wet spots in our field, even though they’re similar to many others commonly farmed through by farmers all over the US (and those seasonal wetlands are still present on our property, as they were before our plowing),” Duarte wrote in an op-ed at the time.
“It will destroy an important California family business and many jobs,” he said of the financial penalties. “It will also give the federal government unlimited power to extract wealth from family farms and rural communities nationwide.”
Duarte’s farming business, Duarte Nursery, Inc., employed 500 people at the time.