U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Blow to Key Biden Environmental Policy in Unanimous Ruling

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling Thursday that narrowed the federal government’s authority to regulate bodies of water and effectively upended a Biden administration policy that went into effect recently. 

The high court’s 9-0 decision, delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, rejected the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) broad definition of Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The case was centered on Chantall and Michael Sackett, two Idaho residents whom the EPA prevented from building a home near a wetland years ago, citing the 1972 Clean Waters Act (CWA).

“The EPA ordered the Sacketts to restore the site, threatening penalties of over $40,000 per day,” stated Alito’s majority opinion. “The EPA classified the wetlands on the Sacketts’ lot as ‘waters of the United States’ because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake. The Sacketts sued, alleging that their property was not ‘waters of the United States.’”

Ultimately, the ruling held that the federal government’s WOTUS definition must be restricted to a water source with a “continuous surface connection” to other major bodies of water.

While on the merits, the decision was unanimous; the court split 5-4 on determining how the federal government should define water sources. 

“Understanding the CWA to apply to wetlands that are distinguishable from otherwise covered ‘waters’ of the United States’ would substantially broaden [existing statute] to define ‘navigable waters’ as ‘waters of the United States and adjacent wetlands’” wrote Alito. 

Republican lawmakers and groups representing landowners cheered the ruling

Groups representing landowners and GOP lawmakers cheered the ruling months after the EPA finalized and implemented the new WOTUS regulation. 

On the final working day of 2022, December 30, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA quietly announced they had approved the WOTUS regulation and would be implemented in March. Following announcing it, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the rule “safeguards our nation’s waters.”

The rule opened the door for the federal government to regulate ponds, lakes, streams, wetlands, and “relatively permanent” waterways, which essentially mimicked a pre-2015 environmental rule set during the Obama administration that implemented the changes in an attempt to curb water pollution. 

The regulation was the most expansive interpretation of water sources requiring protection under the CWA. 

GOP lawmakers, multiple states, and industry groups blasted the regulation as an example of federal overreach and demanded that it be rescinded. In April, a federal judge approved a request from several trade groups and 24 states to pause the implementation of the regulation. And the Senate and House both approved a resolution that rejected the regulation. 

“Today, the Supreme Court sent a loud and clear warning shot to the Biden administration about its attempts to overregulate the lives of millions of Americans,” said Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“By rejecting the ‘significant nexus’ test, the Court protected America’s farmers, ranchers, builders, and landowners from overreach under the Clean Water Act, and ruled President Biden’s recent WOTUS rule goes too far,” added Capito. “I was proud to both support the petitioners on this case last year and lead a successful effort this year in Congress to overturn the Biden WOTUS rule and am thrilled with the Court’s decision today, which is a major win for individual freedom.”

GOP Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse of Washington said the court ruled in favor of “the Constitution, the American people, and our freedoms” and called on the EPA to officially rescind the WOTUS regulation. A group representing the farmers, the Waters Advocacy Group, praised the Supreme Court for preserving water protections while delivering clarity for landowners and farmers. 

“The Court’s opinion also upends the Biden Administration’s overreaching WOTUS rule,” said the group. “After decades of attempts to expand the federal government’s power over private land, America’s job creators and farmers can proceed with more certainty in delivering critical services our economy depends on, from growing healthy foods to building affordable homes and producing domestic energy.”