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Supreme Court case to test Clean Water Act's reach

A thin body of water is surrounded by greenery growing out from the water. More greenery and hills can be seen in the background.
Dominic Gentilcore
Adobe Stock
The Wayne E. Kirch Wildlife Management Area in Nevada.

News brief

The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will look at limiting the scope of the landmark federal clean water law. A ruling could strip pollution protections for wetlands and ephemeral and intermittent streams in parts of the arid West.

“Almost the entirety of the Great Basin could be excluded from Clean Water Act protections,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director for the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

The case centers on an Idaho couple who were blocked by the federal government from building a house near a wetland. They argue the wetland isn’t protected under the Clean Water Act. It’s part of a larger fight over which water bodies are actually protected by the law, which governs pollution control and water quality.

The 1972 law's language is vague and a 2006 Supreme Court decision didn’t help. The 5-4 ruling essentially created two conflicting definitions.

Some justices said the law only protects permanent lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Others argued it also protects nearby wetlands and intermittent rivers and streams. The Trump administration took the more limited view in writing its water rule. But a federal judge in Arizona threw out that rule last year, and now the Biden administration's crafting its own definition on the reach of one of the country's bedrock environmental laws.

A ruling on the Idaho case could finally put the fight to rest. The Supreme Court will take up the case this fall.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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