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Supreme Court Limits EPA’s Authority Over Wetlands Under Clean Water Act

May 31, 2023

Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate and define wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The ruling passed 5-4 and changes the way that wetlands are classified in the United States.

The ruling comes in the wake of a dispute between an Idaho couple and the EPA after they received a stop-work order during the construction of their new home in 2007. The EPA claimed that the couple’s property contained wetlands, or “navigable waters” protected by the Clean Water Act. This prompted the couple to sue the EPA and resulted in the exacerbated court proceedings which came to a head last week.

The Supreme Court’s ruling essentially changes the definition of wetlands as they pertain to the Clean Water Act. This ruling states that a property is considered wetlands protected by the CWA only if it shares a continuous surface connection to bodies of water that are recognized as navigable waters of the United States. Defining “navigable waters of the United States” has been an ongoing debate within the courts since the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Reasoning for this ruling came from Justice Alito, who claimed that only wetlands directly connected to protected waters will still fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA since they are indistinguishable from the protected waters. If a property is “easily distinguishable” from protected bodies of water, then it will not be classified as a wetland by the EPA and is not subject to CWA regulations. This ruling can be seen as a victory for landowners, as fewer EPA restrictions will afford landowners more freedom to use their property as they see fit.

The opposing justices made strong arguments against the ruling as well, with Justice Kavanaugh stating that the ruling leaves many long-protected lands exposed to potential pollution without the CWA’s restrictions and also noted that bodies of water separated by a man-made dam or dike would not necessarily be considered protected wetlands under this new ruling. He went on to state that there are likely to be significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the country.

Ultimately this ruling is in line with the Supreme Court’s recent rulings against the EPA’s power to regulate and enforce legislation. While this may be seen as a victory for landowners and the landowner’s freedom to use their land in any way they choose, the environmental impacts of this ruling remain to be seen and should be closely monitored over the coming years to ensure our environment stays protected from further human pollution and interference.

About the Author
Bryce Berglund is National Land Realty’s Content Marketing Specialist. He is currently residing in Minnesota, where he attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Bryce is an appreciator of all things artistic, and likes to spend time at his cabin with his dog and family.