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  • Writer's pictureKaren Budd-Falen

It's an EPA "Miracle" - Turning Your "Dry Land" into a "Wetland?"

By: Karen Budd-Falen

Budd-Falen Law Office, LLC

Remember the story from the Bible where Jesus turned the water into wine? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can also perform miracles—turning dry land into a wetland under the Clean Water Act (CWA). In fact, according to the EPA, a “wetland” can be private property that has NO surface water but has water beneath the surface that then flows under a paved street into a small manmade ditch that goes past other homes and eventually flows into a lake (a navigable water). Because the EPA has defined this dry land as a “wetland,” placing dirt on that property is regulated by the agency. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the federal government can determine that dry land is a wetland or a “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the CWA.

In April 2007, the Sackett family broke ground to build a home on a lot that they purchased in a residential subdivision. The lot is bordered by a county-paved road on one side and residential houses on the other three sides. After the houses, there is a lake. Shortly after they began construction, the EPA sent investigators to inspect the job site for CWA compliance. Without doing any of the technical measurements required under the law, the EPA announced that the Sacketts were violating the CWA by putting additional dirt on their land without a federal permit. The EPA then sent the Sacketts an Order stating that their lot was a “federally regulated wetland” and commanded them to restore the lot to its natural condition and fence it for three years, or face tens of thousands of dollars in daily fines. The EPA Order was based on the property being adjacent to a small ditch across the street that eventually drained into a navigable lake.

The U.S. Supreme Court has now taken this case. The landowners are arguing that the Court should clarify its decision in a prior CWA case from 2006. In that case, four Supreme Court Justices held that the CWA only grants federal authority over a WOTUS if the wetland (1) exhibits a relatively permanent water flow, (2) there is a continuous surface water connection between the wetland and a relatively permanent waterbody, and (3) it is difficult to determine where the wetland begins and the permanent navigable water ends (called the “connected waters” test). In contrast, four Justices argued that the definition of a WOTUS should be determined by the federal government as the CWA “experts.” The “tie” was broken by Justice Kennedy who said he would define a WOTUS to include a wetland if it bears a “substantial nexus” to a navigable water.

Based on the Supreme Court split, every President has issued a markedly different rule defining a “WOTUS.” Obama expanded the authority of the EPA over private property justified by the “substantial nexus” test. Trump repealed Obama’s rule and developed his own definition based on the “connected waters” test. Now Biden is writing his own rule likely favoring greater authority for the federal government to govern the use of private property.

The ruling soon to be issued by the U.S. Supreme Court will hopefully give landowners an answer as to what lands should be federally regulated under the CWA. This firm will be supporting the private landowners in this case because while I believe that Jesus did and can perform miracles, under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government should not have that same power.

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