In Loss for Clean Water, Supreme Court Rules Wetlands Not Wet Enough to Protect 

Press Release

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Environment


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Zack Ford
zack.ford@afj.org
202-464-7370

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 25, 2023 – Today the Supreme Court dealt a dangerous blow to clean water protections across the country with a decision that will help fossil fuel companies and other polluters do more damage to our environment. 

In the case Sackett v. EPA, landowners in Idaho filed suit arguing that the wetlands on their property should not be subjected to protections under the Clean Water Act. They argued that certain streams and wetlands should not be considered “waters” for purposes of the law, though they have offered no scientific background to support their claim. The Supreme Court’s conservatives nevertheless seized the opportunity to make life easier for polluting corporations while endangering everyone else. 

The opinion distorts what Congress intended when it defined waters to include wetlands that are “adjacent” to other navigable bodies of water. The 5–4 conservative majority instead decided to define “adjacent” as requiring a “continuous surface connection,” severely limiting which waters are actually protected by the Act. Justice Kavanaugh and the liberal justices notably responded that there is no justification for this narrowing of the law. As Justice Kagan explained, “in ordinary language, one thing is adjacent to another not only when it is touching, but also when it is nearby.” 

Alliance for Justice President Rakim H.D. Brooks issued the following statement: 

“I recommend that the public consult Justice Kagan’s opinion. She makes plain that the majority has contorted itself to reach an absurd decision — one that contravenes Congress’s intention, exceeds the Court’s constitutional authority, and endangers the planet. 

“Using an absurd distortion of vocabulary to achieve the result the fossil fuel companies prefer, the conservative majority abandons any sense of integrity — even Justice Kavanaugh had to jump ship on this one. Plainly, the Clean Water Act rests on a foundational principle that all connected waterways, including those that manmade structures interrupt, are regulated by the Act. That is the Act they should be enforcing, but their decision fails that simple test. 

“This Supreme Court opinion is just another example of the conservative justices ignoring science, common sense, and the health of our nation. We know that climate change is only going to make it harder to protect access to clean water, making this a huge setback for the entire planet. This is not a ruling on behalf of reason or the rule of law, but one that helps the rich get richer at the expense of everybody else.”