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The Supreme Court’s Redefinition of “Waters of the United States” and Its Implications on Federal Wetland Jurisdiction

Jason Hammond May 25, 2023

In a landmark decision (Sackett v. EPA) that will significantly reshape environmental law and policy, the United States Supreme Court recently redefined the scope of the term “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). This redefinition will not only change the way the U.S. Government interacts with its waters but also carries broad implications for federal jurisdiction over wetlands.

A New Interpretation of WOTUS

The definition of WOTUS has been a matter of legal contention for years, with battles being fought both in the courtroom and through legislative action. The term is of central importance to the Clean Water Act, the primary federal law governing water pollution. Its purpose is to maintain the integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing pollution and degradation.

The Supreme Court, in a narrow decision, decided to redefine WOTUS, leading to a narrower interpretation that lessens federal protections for many wetlands and smaller waterways. The court’s majority opinion argued that the previous broad definition of WOTUS overextended the federal government’s jurisdiction and infringed on states’ rights.

Implications for Wetlands

Wetlands, which include swamps, marshes, and bogs, serve vital ecological roles. They provide habitats for many species, buffer against floods, filter pollutants from water, and store carbon to mitigate climate change. However, the court’s decision implies that a significant portion of these wetlands would no longer fall under federal protection, with potential serious ecological consequences.

This redefinition of WOTUS also implies that developers, farmers, and industries will face fewer restrictions and less federal oversight when building on or near these areas. Many environmentalists fear that the decision will lead to increased pollution and destruction of wetlands.

State vs Federal Rights

The decision has rekindled the ongoing debate between states’ rights and federal jurisdiction. Supporters of the ruling argue that it corrects overreach by the federal government and returns the power to manage local water resources to states. This perspective contends that states are in a better position to manage their unique water ecosystems and the local challenges they face.

However, critics of the Supreme Court warn that the ruling could lead to inconsistent protections across states, undermining the national objective of clean water. They argue that water bodies do not respect state boundaries and polluted water in one state can affect the water quality downstream in another.

Looking Forward

While the immediate impact of this decision will likely involve reduced federal oversight, the long-term implications are complex and far-reaching. Questions abound regarding how states will respond to this shift in responsibility and whether they are prepared to manage these resources effectively.

In the context of an ever-changing climate and growing population pressures, the management of the nation’s water bodies and wetlands becomes increasingly critical. Regardless of one’s perspective on this ruling, it has undoubtedly shifted the environmental policy landscape and sets the stage for critical conversations about how best to protect and manage our vital water resources.

The Supreme Court’s redefinition of “waters of the United States” marks a significant turning point in environmental law and policy. As the impact of this decision unfolds, we will continue to grapple with the balance between federal and state rights, the importance of environmental protection, and the need for economic development. As a lawyer practicing in the area of wetlands permitting, I will continue to watch for the consequences of this decision.

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