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In unanimous ruling, U.S. Supreme Court backs north Idaho couple, narrows Clean Water Act

S. Hammarlund, via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License
Priest Lake, in northwestern Bonner County.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a north Idaho couple in a unanimous decision Thursday that narrowed the scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency told Michael and Chantell Sackett to stop work on a house they were building near Priest Lake, in northwestern Bonner County. The agency said the Sacketts’ property included a wetland the EPA believed was protected under federal law.

The Supreme Court rejected the EPA’s interpretation. In so doing, the court narrowed the definition of a protected wetland under the Clean Water Act – namely, that for a wetland to be covered by the Act, it must be part of or joined with a standing body of water, such as a lake, and not simply nearby.

“Because the adjacent wetlands…are ‘includ[ed]’ within ‘the waters of the United States,’ these wetlands must qualify as ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “In other words, they must be indistinguishably part of a body of water that itself constitutes ‘waters’ under the [Clean Water Act].”

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian group that represented the Sacketts in court, hailed the ruling for restricting the Clean Water Act to what the foundation called “its original and proper limits.”

Though all nine of the Supreme Court’s justices agreed on the Sackett case, four justices disagreed with the choice to use the case to redefine the terms of the Clean Water Act. Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown-Jackson joined an opinion written by Brett Kavanaugh. The paper argued the court’s new definition ignored the text of the law and legal precedent, and introduced “significant repercussions” for water quality, pollution and flood control across the country.

Kavanaugh’s opinion argued the wording of the Clean Water Act allows wetlands near bodies of water to be protected, not just those physically connected to those bodies.

“In my view, the Court’s ‘continuous surface connection’ test departs from the statutory text, from 45 years of consistent agency practice, and from this Court’s precedents,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Environmental group Earthjustice said the ruling undermined the EPA’s efforts to regulate wetland protections. In a statement, the group claimed the decision puts more than 118 million acres of formerly-protected wetlands at risk for pollution and development.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.