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Supreme Court sides with Idaho couple, undercuts EPA’s power to regulate wetlands

A view of a wetland pond surrounded by green grasses on a partly cloudy day in Utah. Mountains are in the background.
USFWS Mountain-Prairie
The Supreme Court has limited the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate wetlands, such as this wetland at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently sided with a couple battling federal officials over plans to build a house on a wetland in northern Idaho. Some call the ruling a victory for property rights, but its consequences extend to wetlands and waterways nationwide.

Michael and Chantell Sackett wanted to build a home near Priest Lake in Idaho’s panhandle. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the property was a protected wetland under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

That’s no longer the case. The Supreme Court concluded on May 25 that the Clean Water Act only applies to wetlands with “a continuous surface connection” to bodies of water.

The ruling narrows the scope of the Clean Water Act, severely limiting the federal government's ability to regulate wetlands. It was praised by many Republican politicians across the U.S., including congressional delegations in Mountain West states.

“Today is a great day for Wyoming, a great day for private property rights, a great day for farmers and ranchers,” Rep. Harriet Hageman of Wyoming said in a recorded statement.

In a written statement, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho said he is glad to see the court “provide needed clarity on this issue.”

“The EPA simply cannot continue in its attempt to regulate every puddle, ditch, and stream in this country,” he continued. “This decision is a victory for Idaho and the many property owners, farmers, and ranchers who are left to deal with the very real consequences of regulatory uncertainty.”

Meanwhile, conservationists say the court’s decision to weaken the EPA’s authority to protect wetlands and waterways from pollution will have devastating effects.

“It compromises and directly weakens a 50-year national commitment that this country has had to trying to make our waters more fishable, swimmable and drinkable,” said Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, adding the court’s decision to undermine a basic right like clean water is “mind-numbing.”

President Joe Biden said in a statement that the court’s ruling “upends the legal framework that has protected America’s waters for decades.”

He continued: “It also defies the science that confirms the critical role of wetlands in safeguarding our nation’s streams, rivers, and lakes from chemicals and pollutants that harm the health and wellbeing of children, families, and communities,” he said.

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.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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