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SCOTUS Ruling Delivers Major Win for Property Rights and Voluntary Conservation Efforts

  • Kat Dwyer
  • BOZEMAN, MT—Today, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Sackett family in their years-long legal battle with the Environmental Protection Agency. 

    The ruling in Sackett v. EPA rejected the “significant nexus” test, which applied a vague and unhelpful definition of “navigable waters” regulated under the Clean Water Act. This lack of clarity over federal authority has led to significant conflict between landowners, conservationists, and regulators. 

    “Today’s ruling brings significant clarity to federal wetlands regulation but also signals the need to ramp up voluntary wetlands conservation. For decades, uncertainty over the extent of Clean Water Act regulation has made wetlands a liability for private landowners. All nine justices rejected the prior vague standard in favor of relatively narrow understandings of federal authority over private property. Now that fewer wetlands will be regulatory liabilities for private landowners, it’s time for voluntary conservation efforts to make wetlands an asset to landowners.” — Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)

    A majority of the high court ruled that the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction extends only to wetlands that are “indistinguishable” from larger bodies of water by having a “continuous surface connect.” Four other justices would have interpreted the Clean Water Act slightly more broadly, to include wetlands next to a water body but separated by a berm, levee, or similar feature.  Because the Sackett’s property is removed from other bodies of water, it would be exempt from Clean Water Act jurisdiction under either interpretation. 

    Now that there is a straightforward standard for federal regulation, conservation organizations have a clear signal where private, voluntary conservation efforts are needed to restore wetlands. This clarity obviously benefits landowners like the Sacketts, but it can also benefit conservation efforts by reducing conflict, better focusing federal enforcement efforts, and encouraging states and private conservation groups to make wetlands an asset rather than a liability for private landowners. 

    More detail:

    Dating back to 2007, the Sackett family has been entangled in a legal battle that has precluded their ability to build a home near Priest Lake, Idaho. The EPA deemed they were out of compliance with the Clean Water Act, claiming they had illegally filled a federally regulated wetland without obtaining a permit to do so. The family was ordered to restore the wetland to EPA standards or else face fines up to $75,000 per day and possible criminal prosecution. 

    According to EPA estimates, permit applicants spend between $1 billion and $1.6 billion on these costs annually. But this is only the beginning of the expense. If a permit is granted, the EPA may demand mitigation that can cost more than $500,000 per acre.

    The EPA reasoned that the Sackett’s property was covered by WOTUS because it contains a wetland that is similar to another wetland across the street from their property. Because that neighboring wetland drains into a man-made ditch, and that ditch connects to a creek that empties into Priest Lake, which is navigable, the Sackett’s separate wetland was considered navigable as well. Today’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Sacketts voids this prior EPA decision.

    Additional resources: 

    A Broad Interpretation of WOTUS Undermines Wetland Conservation

    Clear As Mud: A half-century after the Clean Water Act was enacted, there’s still no clear answer as to what it regulates. A new Supreme Court case may finally provide some clarity.

    Written By
    • Kat Dwyer
      Kat Dwyer
      • Marketing & Media Manager

      Kat Dwyer is PERC’s marketing and media manager.

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