Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency

Justia Summary

Sackett began backfilling an Idaho lot with dirt to build a home. The Environmental Protection Agency informed Sackett that the property contained wetlands and that the backfilling violated the Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharging pollutants into “the waters of the United States,” 33 U.S.C. 1362(7). The EPA ordered Sackett to restore the site, threatening penalties of over $40,000 per day. The EPA classified the Sacket wetlands 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 Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the EPA.

The Supreme Court reversed. CWA jurisdiction over an adjacent wetland requires that the adjacent body of water constitutes waters of the United States (a relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters) and a continuous surface connection between the wetland and that water, making it difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.”

The Court reviewed the history of judicial interpretation of “the waters of the United States” and enforcement by federal agencies, which argued that the significant-nexus test was sufficient to establish jurisdiction over “adjacent” wetlands. Under that test, nearly all waters and wetlands are potentially susceptible to regulation, “putting a staggering array of landowners at risk of criminal prosecution for such mundane activities as moving dirt.” The CWA’s use of “waters” encompasses only relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies, ordinarily called streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes. Wetlands qualify as “waters of the United States” only if “indistinguishable from waters of the United States,” having a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right, with no clear demarcation between waters and wetlands.