Skip to content
Main Menu
Utah Attorney General
Attorney General
Sean D. Reyes
Utah Office of the Attorney General
Secondary Navigation

Supreme Court Rules in Waters of the U.S. Case

May 30, 2023

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Sackett v Environmental Protection Agency, giving a more thorough and constrained definition to the Waters of the United States within the Clean Water Act. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the ruling for the Court – with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett concurring.  

The case involved a battle between two Idaho residents (the Sacketts) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Sacketts attempted to backfill their property with dirt as an initial step for building a home. Still, they were stymied by the EPA due to its overbearing interpretation of Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The EPA claimed unconstitutional authority and jurisdiction over the Sacketts’ actions on their property – even threatening fines of $40,000 a day – because a nearby ditch emptied into a non-navigable creek, which emptied into Priest Lake – a navigable, intrastate body of water. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the EPA’s position, leading to the arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court.  

The U.S. Supreme Court, through Justice Alito’s opinion, held that the Clean Waters Act “extends to only those ‘wetlands’ with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right, so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters.” The justices determined that “the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property are distinguishable from any possibly covered waters,” reversing the decision from the Ninth Circuit. 

Last year, Utah signed an Amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, led by West Virginia and joined by 25 other states. The States asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in this matter, making the case that the recent decisions offend states’ authority, conflict with the Clean Waters Act text, present serious Constitutional concerns, and burden both states and the public.  

General Reyes said: “I am pleased to see a majority of Supreme Court Justices reining in the Environmental Protection Agency. This case is vital for all western states and the vast number of dry creek beds around us. States have primary sovereignty over our waters, and this decision recognizes the significant federalism and constitutional concerns when EPA encroaches on that authority. The Sackett decision is an important victory for Utah property owners.”

Earlier this year, General Reyes joined 23 attorneys general in a lawsuit against the Biden Administration’s WOTUS rule attempting to expand federal authority over nearly every waterway in the nation. The attorneys general argued that the EPA’s newly promulgated WOTUS rule “goes beyond the power Congress delegated in the Clean Water Act, raises serious constitutional concerns, and runs roughshod over the Administrative Procedure Act.” If this rule were enacted, the definition of “navigable waters” would be fundamentally transformed to include ponds, certain streams, ditches, and other bodies of water under the Clean Water Act – as determined by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. This case is still pending in federal court. 

Read the U.S. Supreme Court opinion here.