What You Need to Know About Sackett v. EPA

The upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case is nothing less than a judgment on the Clean Water Act itself.
The area around the Sacketts’ property, located near Priest Lake in Idaho

PacificLegalFoundation/flickr, CC BY 4.0

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call it the most important water-related U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case to come along in a generation. Indeed, the outcome of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the first case to be heard in the court’s 2022–2023 term, will determine the future efficacy of the Clean Water Act by deciding whether wetlands are—or aren’t—deserving of federal protection.

Given the close relationship between wetlands and the larger system of streams, rivers, and tributaries to which they belong, the court’s ruling is certain to have a profound impact on the health and quality of all of America’s waterways. Here’s why.

The background of the Supreme Court’s clean water case

Michael and Chantell Sackett, who ran an excavation company, sought to develop property a few hundred feet from Priest Lake, a popular vacation site in the Idaho Panhandle, with plans to build a home there. To prepare the lot for construction, the Sacketts began to fill it with gravel. In 2007, the EPA halted the work after determining that the Sacketts’ lot contained a federally protected wetland. Under the authority granted to it by the Clean Water Act, the agency ordered the couple to remove the gravel and cease any further construction. The Sacketts sued in 2008, and the case wound its way through the federal court system for the next 14 years. Now, before the Supreme Court, their lawyers will argue, among other things, that the wetland the Sacketts filled is not, jurisdictionally speaking, a “water of the United States,” and thus not subject to EPA regulation. 

What are the “waters of the United States”?

Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has played an essential role in protecting the country’s diverse array of aquatic environments from pollution and keeping them safe for fishing, swimming, and wildlife (not to mention as sources of drinking water for millions of people). And for roughly that same amount of time, the act has also been the target of polluters and developers who would like to limit its regulatory scope. One way they’ve attempted to do so? By focusing on a particular—and pivotal—bit of language found in the law, five simple words that carry enormous legal weight: “waters of the United States” (or WOTUS, for short).

Utilizing the Clean Water Act, the EPA is currently in the process of vetoing the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which would pose a critical threat to the area’s wetlands.

EPA

Numerous pollution control programs in the Clean Water Act apply only to WOTUS, and for most people, defining the term is a pretty straightforward matter: The phrase refers to—or at least seems like it would be referring to—the many different bodies of water to be found within the geographical borders of our nation. And according to Jon Devine, the director of NRDC’s federal water policy team, that’s pretty much the correct way to define it.

“Congress intended the phrase to be interpreted very broadly,” says Devine. When lawmakers were drafting the Clean Water Act half a century ago, he says, they envisioned its protections as extending to all the various bodies of water that make up a watershed, many of which people use for recreation, fishing, and drinking-water supply. And while those lawmakers may not have been hydrologists, they nevertheless understood the fundamental interrelatedness of these different bodies of water. “So the very earliest regulations set forth by the EPA were inclusive,” Devine notes. As a jurisdictional matter, WOTUS comprised “all the relevant parts of an aquatic ecosystem, including streams, wetlands, and small ponds—things that aren't necessarily connected to the tributary system on the surface, but that still bear all kinds of ecological relationships to that system and to one another.”

Still, given the restrictions on how people could interact with these protected waters, interested parties were inclined to litigate the meaning of the term over the decades. “There were always fights about it,” Devine says. “A developer who wanted to bulldoze a wetland, or a polluter who was being prosecuted for dumping into a small stream, would question whether that particular feature should really be considered a water of the United States.” But, as Devine notes, “they largely lost.” And as a result, the more inclusive definition prevailed—or at least it did until the early 2000s, when cracks in that foundation began to develop.

SCOTUS on WOTUS

The most significant development on this front took the form of two separate opinions authored by Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in a 2006 case, Rapanos v. United States. Like Sackett v. EPA, it also involved filling wetlands without a permit to do so. In their individual opinions, Scalia and Kennedy outlined two contrasting ways of identifying which waters merited protection under the Clean Water Act. For Scalia, those that qualified had to be either so-called navigable waters (think rivers, lakes, basically anything that can accommodate a boat), regularly flowing tributaries to those waters, or wetlands—so long as those wetlands had a continuous surface connection to a body of water that already enjoyed federal protection.

The Wood River Wetland in southern Oregon is home to an array of biodiverse vegetation and is a freshwater ecoregion.

Bureau of Land Management

Kennedy saw things differently. He maintained that the connection between wetlands and other bodies of water didn’t necessarily have to be visible—i.e., continuous, and on the surface—but could be measured in other ways. For Kennedy, the far more important question was: Does a given wetland share a significant nexus with another protected body of water? Or (in somewhat plainer English), would polluting or destroying certain wetlands affect the physical, chemical, or biological health of the second body of water? If the answer was yes, Kennedy believed, then both deserved the same level of protection, regardless of whether a boat could easily journey between them.

Although the lower courts consistently ruled that wetlands satisfying Kennedy’s test must be protected (consistent with the views of both the Bush and Obama administrations), polluting industries kept arguing that Scalia’s view should govern. The Trump administration adopted a definition based on the Scalia approach, but it was quickly struck down in court. Which brings us to 2022, and to Sackett—and to the dangerous possibility of a Supreme Court ruling that will adopt a radically narrow view.

The stakes for our wetlands—and water

Wetlands are hugely important. In the words of the EPA, they “are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rainforests and coral reefs.” By regulating water flow, they can dramatically lessen the impact of both floods and droughts. They provide habitat for all manner of fish, birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. And they do all of these things while storing massive amounts of carbon in their abundant vegetation—making safeguarding wetlands a valuable natural climate solution.

From left: A Florida red-bellied cooter turtle in the Everglades; an oak toad in Everglades; migratory birds near wetlands in Louisiana

George Sanker/NPL/Minden Pictures; NPS; Julie Dermansky

In a better world, perhaps, those reasons would be enough to ensure that wetlands receive the maximum level of federal protection, but the main question before the Supreme Court right now is: When wetlands are intrinsically connected to other indisputably protected waters, does the Clean Water Act prevent their unregulated pollution and destruction? If not, then the Sacketts’ efforts to get rid of the one on their property wouldn’t need a federal permit, and developers and polluters can celebrate. But if wetlands that are intrinsically connected to other waters are protected, then destroying or polluting them is tantamount to destroying or polluting a lake or a river: an indisputable violation of the Clean Water Act.

For Devine, the answer is clear—so clear that he and his colleagues at NRDC and the Southern Environmental Law Center  felt compelled to file a friend-of-the-court brief on the matter, in support of the EPA, that was entered into the court’s docket earlier this year. In that document, Devine says, more than 100 conservation and community organizations argue that “based on the history of the Clean Water Act, and on prior Supreme Court cases, the law—at the very leastprotects the kinds of things found on the Sacketts’ property.” Not only is the wetland in question spitting distance from a huge lake that’s also a popular recreational spot, but this particular wetland is also part of a larger complex of wetlands through which water flows, underground, to the lake. And like nearly all other wetlands, it provides all kinds of water purification, water regulation, and wildlife habitat. “The law should protect these wetlands that, the science shows, have such an important effect on downstream waters,” Devine says.

Water flows in all sorts of ways: aboveground; belowground; rapidly, down rivers and streams; and also slowly, through the cleansing filters of the reeds, soils, and grasses that make up a wetland. “The notion that the law can’t protect a body of water, simply because there’s a road between it and another body of water that’s unquestionably protected, is absurd and unscientific,” says Devine. “And it would defeat the purpose of the Clean Water Act.”


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