HomeEnvironment & Climate NewsSupreme Court Limits EPA’s Authority in Victory for Landowners
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Supreme Court Limits EPA’s Authority in Victory for Landowners

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Sackett v. EPA, a case dealing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) broad application of the 1972 Clean Water Act to isolated wetlands on private property, that the Clean Water Act does not apply to the Sackett family’s property.

16-Year Battle Finally Over

In 2007, the Sackett family began construction of their home on a 0.63-acre vacant lot near Priest Lake, Idaho.

The EPA sent a letter to the Sacketts informing them their lot contained ”wetlands” that were “navigable waters,” and thus were subject to regulation under the CWA. The EPA directed the Sacketts to halt construction until they received a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps), and to replace the soil they had already removed to level their land, or be subject to fines of more than $40,000 per day until a permit was granted.

Thus began a 16 year-long legal battle for the Sacketts, including appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, not once, but twice. The  Sacketts’ first Supreme Court victory came in 2012 when the justices  ruled they did not have to go through the EPA’s lengthy permitting process before seeking a remedy in federal court.

With this victory in hand, 11 years later, the Sacketts found themselves before the Supreme Court once again, after lower courts, citing previous Supreme Court decisions, found EPA was correct: there was a “significant nexus” connecting the Sacketts property to waters of the United States and thus they were subject to EPA jurisdiction.

The Sacketts challenged this decision, asking the Supreme Court to overturn its “significant nexus” ruling by determining that only wetlands having a direct surface connection to waters of the United States could be regulated by the EPA, which would clearly establish their land is not regulable under the CWA.

Sacketts Prevail

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held the Sacketts’ land was not a jurisdictional wetland and that they could develop their property without further interference by the federal government.

According to the opinion written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the EPA classified the Sacketts’ property as waters of the United States (WOTUS) merely because they were near a ditch that intermittently held water that fed a creek, which ran into a nearby navigable lake. Alito said the historic uncertainty surrounding the definition of WOTUS has been a constant issue for the courts and landowners, in large part because it has been broadened over time. He said the EPA even admits that basically every puddle or ditch could fall under their jurisdiction.

“By the EPA’s own admission, 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,” Alito wrote.

Ending the “Significant Nexus” Standard

A five-justice majority went further, agreeing with the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2006 plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States, where Scalia argued the CWA defined WOTUS as “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water,” with a “continuous surface connection.”

This ends the EPA and lower courts’ use of former Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “significant nexus test” in Rapanos, which allowed for a much broader interpretation of what constitutes WOTUS.

This ruling will help other courts decide current and future CWA cases, said Damien Schiff, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, one of the attorneys arguing the case, in a press release.

“The Court’s ruling returns the scope of the Clean Water Act to its original and proper limits,” said Schiff. “Courts now have a clear measuring stick for fairness and consistency by federal regulators. Today’s ruling is a profound win for property rights and the constitutional separation of powers.”

“Providing clarity and reducing property owners’ uncertainties concerning the CWA’s scope and limits is one of the most substantial benefits of this ruling,” Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy at the Property and Environment Research Center, said in a press release.

“All nine justices rejected the prior vague standard in favor of relatively narrow understandings of federal authority over private property,” Wood said. “Now that fewer wetlands will be regulatory liabilities for private landowners, it’s time for voluntary conservation efforts to make wetlands an asset to landowners.”

Moots Biden’s Water Rule

This ruling will especially benefit farmers and ranchers, who have historically been targets of expanding EPA powers.

Even as Sackett v. EPA was being decided in the Supreme Court, the Biden administration’s EPA and Army Corps rushed through a strict new rule regulating WOTUS, which would have greatly expanded the amount of private and state lands considered regulable as waters of the United States.

Attorneys General of 24 states filed suit against the EPA and Army Corps in response, in part, arguing  the new rule would force farmers and ranchers to pay high fees just to conduct ordinary business on their own property, if they were able to get permits at all.

The Senate attempted to overturn the new EPA WOTUS rule via a Congressional Review Act joint resolution, but President Joe Biden vetoed the resolution, and the rule went into effect on April 6.

Now, just a few weeks later, much of the rule has been rendered moot by the majority decision in Sackett v. EPA.

‘Welcome News to Farmers’

This ruling by the Supreme Court is great news for those in the domestic agriculture business, Ted McKinney, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said in a press statement.

“The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Sackett v. EPA today comes as welcome news to farmers, landowners and state departments of agriculture who sought clarity on what has been an over-litigated issue for decades,” McKinney said. “We take relief in this decision as the justices clearly state the ‘significant nexus theory is particularly implausible’ and the EPA has no statutory basis to impose the standard.

“Today’s ruling proves that protecting our nation’s waterways and growing food, fiber and fuel are two tandem efforts—not two competing interests,” McKinney said. “There is, however, still work to be done to ensure farmers and ranchers are equipped to best care for their land while following applicable federal or state requirements.”

Linnea Lueken (llueken@heartland.org) is a research fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute.

For more on federal wetlands issues, click here.

For more on the Sackett case, click here.

Linnea Lueken
Linnea Luekenhttps://www.heartland.org/about-us/who-we-are/linnea-lueken
Linnea Lueken is a Research Fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy. While she was an intern with The Heartland Institute in 2018, she co-authored a policy brief 'Debunking Four Persistent Myths About Hydraulic Fracturing'.


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