In a major Supreme Court ruling, the justices on the highest court in the land agreed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overstepped its authority in threatening penalties of $40,000 per day to Michael and Chantell Sackett of Priest Lake, Idaho. The EPA classified the wetlands on the Sacketts’ lot as “waters of the United States” subject to the Clean Water Act because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek. That, in turn, fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake. Ultimately, the EPA wanted the Sacketts to fill in that wetland.
The Sacketts said “no way” and sued. They alleged that their property was not “waters of the United States.”
That began a legal journey.
The District Court entered a summary judgment for the EPA. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Clean Water Act (CWA) covers wetlands with an ecologically significant nexus to traditional navigable waters and that the Sacketts’ wetlands satisfy the standard.
After those cases, the Supreme Court agreed to take the case, and arguments were made on October 3, 2022. The decision came down on May 25, 2023.
Must have a continuous surface connection
In writing the major opinion, Justice Samuel Alito shared, “This case concerns a nagging question about the outer reaches of the Clean Water Act, the principal federal law regulating water pollution in the United States.
“When we last addressed the question 17 years ago, we were unable to agree on the opinion of the Court. Today, we return to the problem and attempt to identify with greater clarity what the Act means by ‘waters of the United States,’” wrote Justice Alito.
In bringing greater clarity, the court declared that the EPA only has jurisdiction over wetlands that have continuous surface connection to navigable waters. In making that ruling, the Supreme Court rejected a far more expansive view proposed by the EPA.
This isn’t the Sacketts’ first trip to the Supreme Court. Nearly a decade ago, the couple won a unanimous decision confirming their right to sue the EPA in federal court. With the win this May, the couple can build a home on the land they bought near Priest Lake.
Far deeper implications
“The American Farm Bureau Federation appreciates the Supreme Court justices for their careful consideration of the implications of Sackett v. EPA. The EPA clearly overstepped its authority under the Clean Water Act by restricting private property owners from developing their land despite being far from the nearest navigable water,” said Zippy Duvall, the organization’s president.
“The justices respect private property rights. It’s now time for the Biden administration to do the same and rewrite the Waters of the United States rule,” continued Duvall. “Farmers and ranchers share the goal of protecting the resources they’re entrusted with, but they deserve a rule that provides clarity and doesn’t require a team of attorneys to properly care for their land.”