U.S. Supreme Court Narrows the Scope of the Clean Water Act by Limiting EPA’s Jurisdiction over Wetlands
In Sackett v. EPA, 2023 WL 3632751 (U.S. May 23, 2023), the Supreme Court limited the authority of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to regulate wetlands by embracing a “continuous surface connection test” to determine if adjacent wetlands are subject to the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) and explicitly rejecting Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test from Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 754 (2006). While the 9-0 decision was unanimous in judgment by holding that the Sacketts’ wetland was not subject to federal jurisdiction, the court was sharply divided as to the test to determine when an adjacent wetland qualifies as a Water of the United States (or “WOTUS”). A five-justice majority held that the CWA’s jurisdiction includes only adjacent wetlands that are indistinguishable from WOTUS due to a continuous surface connection. Under this framework, for an adjacent wetland to be subject to CWA jurisdiction, the adjacent body of water must constitute a WOTUS, and the adjacent wetland must have a continuous surface connection with the WOTUS such that it is difficult to determine where the body of water ends and the wetland begins. The majority’s holding casts serious doubt on the continuing viability on the final WOTUS rule that became effective earlier this year and relied in part on the “significant nexus” test that EPA and the United States Army Corps have applied through guidance since the Rapanos decision. See 88 Fed. Reg. 3004 (Jan. 18, 2023).
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