News Feature | May 30, 2023

Supreme Court Rules Against U.S. EPA Authority To Curb Pollution Of Source Water

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


In a ruling about the U.S. EPA’s authority to govern pollution in national wetlands, the Supreme Court limited the agency’s ability to enforce Clean Water Act protections.

“At issue was the reach of the landmark 51-year-old Clean Water Act and how courts should determine what count as ‘waters of the United States’ under protection of the law,” The Washington Post reported. “...the court majority sided with a decades-long effort by property rights groups and businesses to narrow regulations to wetlands and other areas directly connected to ‘navigable waters’ such as rivers and lakes.”

The exact scope of EPA authority to prevent source water pollution has been contested for years as different executive administrations and courts attempt to define a Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The latest version, redefined by the Biden administration, faced significant legal contention even before this Supreme Court ruling.

“The ruling affects one of the most fundamental authorities at the EPA, its ability to extend protections to upstream waters in order to protect downstream water quality for drinking and wildlife,” according to the Post. “It will prevent the agency from putting federal protections on as much as 118 million acres of wetlands, an area larger than the landmass of California …  And it probably will force the Biden administration to abandon — or at least restart — an effort it began in 2021 to resolve years of uncertainty with new definitions on the type of waterways EPA rules can protect, leaving more of that power up to state governments.”

The court made its ruling about EPA authority over national wetlands based on the case of an Idaho couple who argued that their property rights were being infringed by undue clean water concerns.

“Chantell and Michael Sackett objected when federal officials identified a soggy portion of the property as a wetlands that required them to get a permit before filling it with rocks and soil,” per the Associated Press. “By a 5-4 vote, the court said in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that wetlands can only be regulated under the Clean Water Act if they have a ‘continuous surface connection’ to larger, regulated bodies of water.”

The source water implications of the ruling are yet to be seen, but it’s almost certain that it won’t be the final word on defining EPA authority or what exactly constitutes “waters of the United States.”

To read more about how legal determinations impact drinking water and wastewater treatment, visit Water Online’s Regulations And Legislation Solutions Center.