The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a case impacting farmers, ranchers and landowners regarding the agency’s “Waters of the U.S. Rule”, or WOTUS for short.
In an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court said that the EPA’s interpretation of wetlands and “navigable waters” covered by the Clean Water Act of 1972 is “inconsistent” with the law’s text and structure, and the law extends only to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies of water that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling overturns the previous decision made in favor of the EPA by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The lawsuit, Sackett v. EPA (2023), stemmed from a decision by government officials in 2007 to prevent Michael and Chantell Sackett from building a house on property that they owned in Idaho because the EPA deemed that the property contained wetlands under protection by the Clean Water Act.
Although the court was unanimous in its decision, the justices were 5-4 behind its reasoning. Joining Alito’s majority opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson concurred in the judgment.
“The years of whiplash over what is or is not a water of the U.S. had brought us to a point where no one could tell their headwater from their estuary,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “The Supreme Court’s ruling today is a victory for farmers, ranchers, and private property owners across the country and starts us down a path of Clean Water Act implementation that can be sustained. Water quality is a critical issue, but that doesn’t mean every puddle on the farm needs to be subject to federal jurisdiction. NCFC and the farmer-owned cooperatives we represent remain fully committed to federal, state and local efforts to work with agriculture to protect surface water quality throughout the U.S. We hope the certainty provided by today’s decision will give us all a solid framework to work together for lasting solutions.”
“The Supreme Court’s historical decision to define the limits of EPA authority under the Clean Water Act is a tremendous victory for America’s pork producers who have played a leading role for almost two decades in opposing the agency’s heavy-handed efforts to micromanage our farms. This ruling is a clear punctuation point after decades of attempts by activists and the EPA to expand the federal government’s power and control over private land. Farmers are the originators of conservation and are taught the key to preservation is to protect our natural resources. We can now proceed with certainty to use all our conservation assets to best farm our land so we can deliver healthy food to our customers for generations to come, ” said Duane Stateler, NPPC vice president and Ohio pork producer.
“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,” said Todd Wilkinson, South Dakota cattle producer and President of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Today’s Supreme Court opinion refocuses the Clean Water Act on protecting our water resource through regulatory clarity. We look forward to working with the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they implement the Court’s new Continuous Surface Connection standard.”
“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 American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. “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. 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.”