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Idaho reaction to Supreme Court ruling in 'Waters of the United States' case

The ruling in a case that originated in Idaho limits how federal regulators can apply the Clean Water Act.

BOISE, Idaho — A blow to environmental protections, a victory for private-property rights — those, in a nutshell, are the two contrasting reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling announced Thursday in Sackett v. EPA, a case that began in northern Idaho in 2004, when the Environmental Protection Agency threatened penalties of $40,000 a day against a couple getting ready to build a home on their property near Priest Lake.

Chantell and Michael Sackett had begun backfilling their lot with dirt when the EPA informed them that their property contained wetlands and that their backfilling violated the Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharging pollutants into "the waters of the United States." The wetlands were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which in turn fed into Priest Lake.

The Sacketts disagreed with the EPA finding and sued the agency. U.S. District Court and, on appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the EPA's determination. The Supreme Court heard the Sacketts' appeal last October, at the beginning of the 2022-23 term. In the ruling released Thursday morning, all nine justices agreed that the wetlands on the Sacketts' property are not covered by the Clean Water Act.

The Supreme Court, in its ruling Thursday, held that wetlands can only be regulated under the Clean Water Act if they have a "continuous surface connection" to larger bodies of water such as streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined by four other justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh each wrote concurring opinions, agreeing with the judgment but taking issues with different aspects of the majority opinion that Alito wrote.

In the hours after the court's decision was released, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), U.S. Representative Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) and Idaho-based advocacy groups on both sides of the issue weighed in.

"I commend the Court's recognition of the Sacketts' rights and the significance of protecting Idaho's ranchers, farmers, irrigators and landowners from regulatory overreach," Fulcher said in a post on Twitter, which included a link to a longer statement.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation called it "a significant victory for freedom in Idaho and the nation." The group also alleged that the Clean Water Act, approved by Congress in 1972, "gave tremendous regulatory power to a cabal of unelected bureaucrats who crafted draconian rules and then handed down punishments without due process."

The Idaho Conservation League said the ruling ignores the science behind wetlands, and the Supreme Court "protects polluters over people, fish, and wildlife."

"American taxpayers will ultimately pay for it — whether through higher wastewater treatment costs borne by communities instead of polluters, or, even worse, by impacts to human and environmental health. This ruling undermines the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to protect public health, and sends the message that private development that benefits a few individuals is more important than clean water for all," said Marie Callaway Kellner, Conservation Program Director for the ICL, in a news release from the organization.

Congressman Simpson and Idaho Rivers United both said that the Clean Water Act's definition of "Waters of the United States" was not clear, but each had very different takes on the ruling.

Exactly what constitutes WOTUS is not spelled out in detail in federal law. Different regulatory agencies, including the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, have used different interpretations in their respective agencies' rules over the 50 years since the Clean Water Act was adopted.

Simpson said Thursday's ruling provided "needed clarity" on the issue.

"The decision will bring the regulation of the Clean Water Act closer to the Trump Administration's 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule, a rule that I helped write that actually worked for rural America," Simpson said. "When the EPA announced its intention to replace the Navigable Waters Protection Rule with a new rule greatly expanding the federal government's reach, I warned that this pending Supreme Court decision would likely send them back to the drawing board anyway."

Idaho Rivers United Executive Director Nic Nelson said, in part, "A clear and concise definition of 'Waters of the United States,' with the broad protections that were foundationally intended by the Clean Water Act, would have rendered this lawsuit moot and saved hundreds of thousands of wetlands, and ultimately rivers, from the multitude of threats that will undoubtedly inundate them through this ruling."

Nelson called the ruling "truly disheartening," but noted that judges, including Supreme Court justices, are only meant to interpret the intent of laws. He added that the ruling in the Sackett case highlights the importance of electing state and congressional lawmakers "with an understanding of the science of ecology."

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