SCOTUS rules in favor of Sackett family in case against EPA
A landmark decision was made by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 25 in the ongoing Sackett vs. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) case, which unanimously ruled in favor of the Idaho couple Chantell and Mike Sackett and will significantly curtail the EPA’s ability to regulate certain bodies of water.
A years-long battle
This ruling wraps up a 16-year battle between the Sacketts and the EPA.
It all started in 2007 when the couple purchased property near Priest Lake, Idaho and began backfilling the lot with dirt in preparation to build a new home.
Shortly after, officials from the EPA and Army Corp of Engineers informed the Sacketts their lot contained protected wetland habitat and backfilling it violated the Clean Water Act (CWA), which prohibits the discharge of pollutants into “waters of the U.S. (WOTUS).”
According to the case syllabus, published by the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS), the EPA classified wetlands on the property as WOTUS because they were near a ditch which fed into a creek which drains into Priest Lake – “a navigable, intrastate lake.”
The EPA ordered the couple to restore the site and threatened them with fines of over $40,000 per day unless they applied for a federal permit.
Instead, the Sacketts filed a lawsuit, alleging their property was not defined under WOTUS.
A long-standing controversy and the issue at hand is what bodies of water are considered WOTUS.
Under the most recent definition, which was issued by President Joe Biden in December 2022 and published in the Federal Register on Jan. 18, the EPA had authority to regulate various small bodies of water, including those on private lands, if they had a “significant nexus” to navigable waterways.
This includes “tributaries, adjacent wetlands and streams, if they alone or in combination with similarly situated water, significantly affect the chemical, physical or biological integrity of protected waterways.”
“Landowners who even negligently discharge pollutants into navigable waters without a permit potentially face severe criminal and civil penalties under CWA,” reads the case syllabus. “As things currently stand, the agencies maintain the significant nexus test is sufficient to establish jurisdiction over ‘adjacent’ wetlands.”
“By the EPA’s own admission, nearly all waters and wetlands are potentially susceptible to regulation under this test, putting a staggering array of landowners at risk of criminal prosecution for such mundane activities as moving dirt,” it continues.
Because of this, the court concluded the CWA’s use of waters encompasses “only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographical features described in ordinary parlance as streams, oceans, rivers and lakes.”
In a nine to zero decision, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, SCOTUS overturned a previous decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and invalidated the Biden administration’s WOTUS rule.
SCOTUS found the WOTUS definition too broad and decided to limit the EPA’s authority to only wetlands “with a continuous surface connection to navigable waterways.”
A well-received ruling
The Supreme Court’s ruling has been generally well received, especially across the agriculture industry.
In a May 25 press release, Ted McKinney, chief executive officer of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, comments, “The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Sackett vs. EPA 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.”
“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,” he adds.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) expresses their strong support for the ruling and notes they are currently engaged in litigation against the EPA regarding the Biden administration’s WOTUS definition.
“Cattle producers across the country can breathe a sigh of relief today. Since EPA’s adoption of the ‘significant nexus’ test, cattle producers have had to retain costly legal services to determine if water features on their property are federally jurisdictional,” says Todd Wilkinson, South Dakota cattle producer and NCBA president. “The Supreme Court’s opinion refocuses the CWA on protecting our water resource through regulatory clarity.”
American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF President Zippy Duvall says AFBF is appreciative of the court’s careful consideration in regards to implications of the case.
“The EPA clearly overstepped its authority under the CWA by restricting private property owners from developing their land despite being far from the nearest navigable water,” Duvall states. “The justices respect private property rights. It’s now time for the Biden administration to do the same and rewrite the WOTUS rule.”
“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,” he continues.
House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), both vocal critics of Biden’s WOTUS rule, called the SCOTUS decision a major victory for farmers, ranchers and landowners.
“This decision reaffirms the rights of property owners and provides long-needed clarity to rural America,” Thompson says. “In light of this decision, the Biden administration should withdraw its flawed final WOTUS rule. It is time to finally put an end to the regulatory whiplash and create a workable rule to promote clean water while protecting the rights of rural Americans.”
“The Biden administration clearly overreached its authority in defining which waters received federal protections, and I’m glad the Supreme Court agreed with what Republicans have been saying all along. After decades of uncertainty, we finally have a majority opinion from the Supreme Court which will lay this issue to rest once and for all,” says Lummis, a ranking member of the Fisheries, Water and Wildlife Subcommittee and chair of the Senate Western Caucus .
“This court ruling is a win for the hardworking farmers, ranchers, businesses and landowners of Wyoming who desperately needed regulatory clarity when it comes to WOTUS,” she concludes. “An irrigation ditch is not a navigable water, and the Supreme Court agrees with this statement.”
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.