Supreme Court Ruling Limits Waters of the United States Rule

Published On: May 26, 2023By Categories: Newsline

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Chantell and Michael Sackett in their case against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 25.

The case originated after the Sacketts began building a new home in Idaho and placed a large quantity of sand and gravel on their empty plot of land. The EPA soon notified the Sacketts that their property contained protected wetlands that qualify as “navigable waters” or “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act and that all construction must stop.

The Sacketts argued there was no direct connection between their property and the federally protected waters, and that the EPA had no jurisdiction over their property. The case has been working its way through the court system since 2012 before finally arriving at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could significantly impact the EPA’s jurisdiction in enforcing the Clean Water Act. Previously, the EPA has deemed certain wetlands and waterways not directly connected to navigable water as under the authority of the act through the “significant nexus” test. The significant nexus test attempts to determine if a body of water can create a chemical or environmental impact on another body of water to which it is not directly connected.

In their majority opinion, the court decided this test was too vague and implemented with almost no congressional input. The court ruled in the future, to be categorized as a WOTUS, bodies of water must have a direct physical connection and appear almost as one continuous body of water.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority in the 5-4 opinion, said the EPA’s interpretation of its powers went too far. He wrote, “We hold that the CWA 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.”

The decision is expected to greatly reduce the scope of WOTUS in certain areas of the country and fundamentally change its jurisdictional power. In February of 2022, NGWA urged the EPA to postpone any additional work on drafting a new WOTUS rule until the Sackett case was decided. The EPA did not accept the recommendation and published its new rule earlier this year.

“There is still a lot to be seen on how this ruling will impact groundwater across the country,” said NGWA CEO Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC. “But it’s our hope that it will finally bring some clarity and long-term stability to what is actually enforced under the Clean Water Act. We all do better when there are consistent and fair rules in place, and I think this is a step in the right direction.”

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