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Interpretive Summary: Supreme Court rules on WOTUS 

By: Sydney Sheffield 

The United States Supreme Court recently published a ruling on Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, involving the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Biden Administration’s revised Clean Water Act. The ruling limits the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in regulating certain bodies of water that qualify as WOTUS. This is a huge win for farmers and landowners. 

The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the WOTUS rule. The rule changed what types of activities and bodies of water fall under federal jurisdiction and require federal permits for farmers, home builders, and other landowners and businesses with plans to use their property. One of the major drawbacks is that the WOTUS rule uses vague terms to define millions of acres of water and land features including ponds, farms, and backyards. Landowners, businesses, and farmers would have had to hire consultants and experts to figure out whether they need permits to use their land, as well as possibly face severe penalties if incorrect.

The Sackett v. EPA case began in 2007. The Sackett family was building a new home in Priest Lake, Idaho, when the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers officials informed them, their residential lot was on a protected wetland. The Sacketts sued the government after facing numerous threats of fines. The Court ruled in favor of the Sacketts, stating stated that the EPA’s interpretation of wetlands was inconsistent with the text of the Clean Water Act. 

 Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, expressing that the court held that this definition was too broad, and limited EPA’s authority to only wetlands “with a continuous surface connection” to navigable waterways. Joining him in the majority opinion were fellow Republican-appointed Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett.

While all nine Justices agreed that the Sackett’s land should not have been subject to EPA authority, their opinions diverged sharply from there. Republican-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Democrat appointees Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson believe Alito’s conclusion went too far. “By narrowing the Act’s coverage of wetlands to only adjoining wetlands, the Court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The ruling has been highly celebrated in the agriculture industry. Glenn "GT" Thompson, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture stated in a press release, "Today's unanimous ruling in Sackett v EPA is a victory for America's farmers, ranchers, and land owners. The decision reaffirms the rights of property owners and provides long-needed clarity to rural America. 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 that promotes clean water while protecting the rights of rural Americans."

Likewise, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Zippy Duvall said, “AFBF 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. The justices respect private property rights.”