What is the Significance of Sackett v. EPA?
In May, the Supreme Court decided the Sackett v. EPA case that narrows the scope of the Clean Water Act by eliminating protections for wetlands that the EPA can regulate, except in very limited circumstances. The Court has dramatically narrowed the scope of the Act, undoing protections that have safeguarded waters of the United States, or WOTUS, for 50 years. This places our population’s public health and local ecosystems in danger, especially those most vulnerable to pollution.
Here on the Mississippi, with wetlands like the 382 acres of Nahant Marsh that mitigate flooding and provide a diverse habitat for fish, waterfowl, and animals, we are still protected because the wetland is connected to navigable water. The new interpretation puts constraints on the types of waterways that EPA has the authority to regulate that are not on navigable water.
The plaintiffs in the landmark case, Chantell and Michael Sackett, argued that their private land in Idaho does not fall under the regulatory scope of EPA. They had been informed that they would be fined for developing their property because the land contains wetlands that are protected under the definition of WOTUS in the Clean Water Act. With the ruling, they are now allowed to develop the property.
The interpretation ignores proven science about our water systems; healthy wetlands contribute to healthy rivers, clean drinking water and opportunities for recreation and more. It rules out wetlands that are connected by ground water, for example,
For the obvious waterways, like the Mississippi River and other big lakes, rivers, and streams, nothing changes. Those that are in flux are wetlands and ephemeral streams, or those that flow intermittently. Where there is pressure from the development and agricultural communities to fill a wetland, federal permitting is no longer required. The US Army Corps won’t have to figure out what the impacts on water quality will be.
If such an agency isn’t the one to figure out the impacts, who is? We, the stewards of water must be mindful of setting environmental standards that are scientifically justified and support state laws that put these important matters in the hands of experts and people who’ve been working in the field for years.