The Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday limiting the federal government’s powers to regulate bodies of water, effectively overturning recently enacted Biden administration policy.
The Supreme Court’s 9-0 unanimous decision, delivered by Judge Samuel Alito, rejected the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) broad definition of Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The case involved Michael and Chantall Sackett, two Idaho residents who years ago were banned by the EPA from building a home near a wetland, citing the Clean Waters Act (CWA) of 1972.
“The EPA ordered the Sacketts to restore the site and threatened fines of over $40,000 a day,” Alito said in majority opinion. “The EPA classified the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property as ‘United States waters’ because they were near a ditch that emptied into a creek that emptied into Priest Lake, a navigable, inland lake. The Sacketts filed a lawsuit, claiming that their property does not belong in “United States waters.”
The judgment ultimately decided that the federal government’s definition of WOTUS must be restricted to a water source with a “continuous surface connection” to large bodies of water.
While the decision on the merits was unanimous, the court split 5-4 opinions on how the federal government should proceed in defining water sources.
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“Understanding that the CWA applies to wetlands distinct from otherwise covered ‘United States waters’ would be a significant extension [existing statute] to define “navigable waters” as “the waters of the United States and adjacent wetlands,” Alito wrote.
The ruling, welcomed by Republican lawmakers and groups representing landowners, comes months after the EPA finalized and implemented a new WOTUS regulation.
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On December 30, the last business day of 2022, the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers quietly announced that they had done so approved the WOTUS regulation and that it would be implemented in March. After the announcement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the rule “protects our country’s waters.”
The rule opened the door for the federal government to regulate wetlands, lakes, ponds, streams and “relatively permanent” waterways, and broadly mimicked an environmental rule enacted prior to 2015 during the Obama administration that implemented the changes in one Efforts to curb water pollution. The ordinance was the broadest interpretation yet of what water sources must be protected under the CWA.
Industry groups, Republicans in Congress and in several states called the ordinance an example of federal abuse and called for its repeal. In April, a federal judge granted a motion by 24 states and several trade groups to stay implementation of the ordinance. And both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed an ordinance in which they opposed the ordinance.
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“Today, the Supreme Court sent a loud and clear warning shot to the Biden administration about its attempts to over-regulate the lives of millions of Americans,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., the senior member of the Senate Environment and Environment Committee for public works.
“By rejecting the ‘Significant Nexus’ test, the court protected America’s farmers, ranchers, contractors and landowners from incursions under the Clean Water Act and ruled that President Biden’s latest WOTUS rule went too far,” Capito added . “I was proud to support petitioners in this case last year and to spearhead a successful effort in Congress this year to overturn the Biden WOTUS rule, and I am delighted with today’s court decision, which marked a great victory for freedom of the individual.”
Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said the court ruled in favor of “the Constitution, the American people and our liberties,” and asked EPA to officially repeal its WOTUS order.
The Waters Advocacy Coalition, a group representing farmers, commended the Supreme Court for upholding water conservation while providing clarity for farmers and landowners.
“The court’s opinion also turns the Biden administration’s over-the-top WOTUS rule on its head,” the group said. “After decades of attempts to expand federal government power over private land, America’s job creators and farmers can act with greater certainty in providing critical services our economy depends on, from growing healthy food to building affordable homes to producing homegrown ones Energy.”
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